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Switchgrass V International Conference:

Dedicated Energy Crops and Native Grasses

for the Emerging Bioeconomy


July 22-25, 2019

Holiday Inn

Champaign, Ill.



Program Coming Soon!


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About the Conference

This event served as an opportunity for scientists and students from around the world to meet and interact with others from a wide range of disciplines.

Participants discussed state-of-the-art research into switchgrass and other dedicated energy crops grown for forage, conservation, and bioenergy feedstock production.

Switchgrass V included: keynote speakers; sessions on genomics and genetic improvement, microbiomes and ecosystem services, agronomy and sustainable production, and postharvest processing and economics; as well as a student poster competition. Participants also visited Illinois’ 320-acre Energy Farm, a model of production for large feedstock grasses.

The Switchgrass V International Conference was sponsored by the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the U of I’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE), the Sun Grant Initiative’s North Central Regional Center, Ernst Conservation Seeds, the Green Lands Blue Waters collaborative initiative, and the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI). Conference planning committee members included D.K. Lee, Tom Voigt, Mike Casler, Robert Mitchell, and Danielle Cooney.

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Agenda, Speakers, and Panelists



5-9 p.m. — On-site Registration/Materials Pick-Up/Hors d’oeuvres



7-8 a.m. — On-site Registration/Materials Pick-Up/Poster Setup/Breakfast

8-8:15 a.m. — Welcome by Germán Bollero, Associate Dean of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Adam Davis, Head of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Overview and Introductions by Switchgrass V Host D.K. Lee, Associate Professor of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

8:15-9 a.m. — Plenary: Michael Casler

Michael Casler

Research Geneticist, Dairy Forage Research Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Madison, Wis.

Presentation title: “27 Years of Perennial Feedstock Research: Accomplishments and Unexpected Impacts”

Abstract: Switchgrass was chosen as the U.S. Department of Energy herbaceous model species for development of biofuel crops in 1992. Since that time, several other important perennial candidate species have emerged onto the research landscape, including miscanthus, energy cane, giant reed, and big bluestem. Grant funding has been sufficiently strong and diverse in Asia, Europe, and North America to support research within a wide range of disciplines, including agronomy and physiology, breeding and genetics, genomics, economics, logistics, and conversion technologies. As an example, agronomists and breeders have increased biomass yield of switchgrass by about 50% and have developed several scenarios by which marginal lands can be used to grow perennial biofuel crops without competing against food crops. Advancements have been made in establishment, management, harvesting, and storage of biofuel crops, all aimed at improving sustainability and reducing production costs. Additional conversion platforms have been developed to more fully utilize all plant biomass, without the need to delignify biomass to gain access to complex carbohydrates. Economic models have demonstrated that biomass production from perennial biofuel crops is sustainable, so the conversion facilities and markets have become the most important missing links for production of sustainable and renewable energy on marginal lands.

Bio: Casler is Research Geneticist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wis. He received a B.S. from the University of Illinois and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota. His research is focused on perennial grass breeding and genetics, including forage and bioenergy applications. Casler served as one of the co-founding Editors-in-Chief of BioEnergy Research and has served on editorial boards of four other international scientific journals. He also founded the journal Forage and Grazlinglands, serving as its first Editor-in-Chief. He taught advanced experimental design and statistical data analysis for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin and as workshops at many other universities. 

More about Casler >>>

9-10:25 a.m. — Session 1.1: Genomics and Genetic Improvement, Part 1

9-9:45 a.m. — KEYNOTE

Thomas Juenger

Professor of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin

Presentation title: “Genetic and Genomic Studies of Local Adaptation and Genotype-by-Environment Interaction in Switchgrass”

Abstract: Plants live in an ever-changing and unpredictable environment. As sessile organisms, they must cope with perturbations to their particular microhabitat in space and time. Which environments matter most? What physiological or metabolic mechanisms buffer responses to the environment? How are these responses encoded in genomes and how do they evolve? Genome-enabled research has characterized the myriad expression and metabolite responses of many species to common stresses including drought, temperature extremes, light stress and salinity. The challenge now is to disentangle evolved and adapted responses of plants to stress from the deleterious results of stress. A promising avenue is the use of locally adapted natural variation to winnow the beneficial responses from the maladaptive consequences of stress. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a polyploid C4 perennial grass that is native to North America and has been championed as a promising biofuel feedstock. It is a common member of most native prairie communities and exhibits extensive phenotypic variability and adaptation across its range, especially related to latitude and precipitation gradients. Much of this variability is associated with evolved lowland and upland ecotypes.  Here, we report on progress on the development of genetic and genomic resources for switchgrass, as well as present results from field experiments aimed at understanding upland/lowland ecotype divergence and local adaptation. In particular, we present preliminary results from QTL studies aimed at detecting gene-by-environment interactions for a variety of traits utilizing collaborative common garden experiments across the species latitudinal range.

Bio: Juenger is a Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago and completed postdoctoral research at the University of California at Berkeley as a Miller Fellow. Juenger’s research focuses on interface of ecological and evolutionary quantitative genetics in natural plant populations. Much of his research has focused on studies of the genetics of physiological traits, abiotic stress tolerance, local adaptation and gene-by-environment interaction. His lab uses a variety of tools including statistical genetic analyses, quantitative trait locus (QTL) and association mapping, studies of gene expression, and genome sequencing. A longstanding effort has centered on the identification and characterization of genes underlying drought adaptation and physiology among natural populationscollected from diverse habitats. More recently, the lab began several projects exploring plant stress responses to climate change and local adaptation in C4 perennial grasses.

More about Juenger >>>


9:45-10:05 a.m.

Loretta Johnson

Professor of Biology, Kansas State University

Presentation title: “Local Adaptation, Genetic Divergence, and Experimental Selection in a Foundation Grass across the U.S. Great Plains’ Climate Gradient”

Abstract: Recent research seeks to understand factors that contribute to population genetic divergence and formation of ecotypes, ultimately leading to new species. Habitats are often temporally and spatially variable, causing different selection pressures across gradients, and resulting in genetic divergence among populations. We focus on Andropogon gerardii, the dominant grass of the Great Plains, that represents ~70% of biomass. It has wide geographic distribution across the Great Plains precipitation gradient from western Kansas (dry) to Illinois (wet). Ecotypes (dry, mesic, wet) were reciprocally planted as ecological communities in Colby, Hays, and Manhattan, Kan., and Carbondale, Ill. It is crucial to understand bluestem responses to climate for restoration and bioenergy and agricultural cattle production. We tested for evidence of local adaptation over six years using single ecotype plots (community plots seeded with other prairie plants) and plots with all three ecotypes mixed together (community plots containing all three ecotypes and other prairie plants). Planting of ecotypes as a community and over multiple years is rarely done, but offers the most realistic test of local adaptation. We utlized Genotyping-By-Sequencing to identify SNP markers in these ecotypes. Principal Component Analyses and population STRUCTURE show strong genetic differentiation between dry and wet ecotypes. Ecotype performance was underpinned by differences in neutral diversity and candidate genes corroborating strong differences among ecotypes. Outlier analysis in Bayescan identified 64 markers under divergent selection, mainly related to rainfall including GA1 (a gene known to control internode length and height in plants), in which we observe strong ecotype differences between dry and wet ecotypes. GWAS showed that GA1 was associated with the plant height phenotype. Single ecotype community plots suggest local adaptation to drought with the plants from central Kansas having higher cover in Hays, and plants from Illinois having greater cover in its home site of Carbondale. To analyze the genetic composition of the mixed ecotype community plots, we used the GBS genotype information from plants of known ecotype, then trained a random forest model that allows us to assign unknown individuals from the mixed plots to one of three ecotypes. These multiyear community plantings show evidence of local adaptation of dry and wet grass ecotypes in reciprocal gardens across the Great Plains. Ultimately these results will provide recommendations to land managers on which climate-adapted source populations of big bluestem will be best suited for bioenergy and restoration plantings in future warmer and drier climates. 

Bio: Johnson is a Professor of Biology at Kansas State University and Director of the Ecological Genomics Institute. She is interested in adaptive variation in Great Plains grasses and uses a combination of reciprocal gardens, greenhouse studies and modeling approaches to study genetic and phenotypic variation of prairie grasses. Johnson received her Ph.D. in Plant Ecology in 1992 from the University of Connecticut.

More about Johnson >>>


10:05-10:25 a.m.

David Lowry

Assistant Professor of Plant Biology, Michigan State University

Presentation title: “The Genetics of Switchgrass Latitudinal Adaptation across North America”

Abstract: Local adaptation is a fundamental driver of biodiversity on planet Earth. While recent experiments have begun to dissect the genetic basis of local adaptation, we still have a very poor understanding of how individual genetic loci contribute to local adaptation over large-scale environmental gradients. To understand local adaptation at a continental scale, we are conducting a long-term 13-field site study, spanning 24 degrees of latitude from central Mexico to the northern United States, in the major bioenergy crop switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Much of the functional genetic variation in switchgrass is distributed clinally with latitude as well as between upland and lowland ecotypes. Southern lowland populations are generally much more tolerant to heat, drought, and pathogens, while northern upland populations are more freezing tolerant. To understand genetic basis of local adaptation across central North America, we conducted a multi-site quantitative trait locus (QTL) study with a northern upland X southern lowland four-way, pseudo-testcross F2 tetraploid mapping population. We have now identified numerous QTLs contributing to variation in biomass, flowering time, plant height, and resistance to pathogens. The vast majority of these QTLs had strong genotype x environment interactions, with additive effects varying greatly among field sites. Overall, many of these loci have major positive benefits with minimal fitness trade-offs across field sites. To understand how individual environmental factors contribute to local adaptation, we are conducting in-depth laboratory and field studies of fungal pathogen resistance and freezing/chilling tolerance. In addition, we recently planted a GWAS population of switchgrass at all of these field sites, which should allow us identify the genes underlying adaptation at a continental scale.

Bio: Lowry grew up in Northern California. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and received a B.S. in Genetics and Plant Biology in 2001. Lowry completed a Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics at Duke University in 2010. He then went on to a postdoctoral position at the University of Texas at Austin, where he began his research on switchgrass with Thomas Juenger. Since 2014, Lowry has been an Assistant Professor in Plant Biology at Michigan State University and a member of the Great Lake Bioenergy Research Center.

More about Lowry >>>

10:25-10:35 a.m. — Break

10:35 a.m.-12:15 p.m. — Session 1.2: Genomics and Genetic Improvement, Part 2

10:35-10:55 a.m.

Serge Edmé

Research Geneticist, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Neb.

Presentation title: “Optimizing Selective Breeding in a Switchgrass Using Genetic and Genomic Tools”

Bio: Edmé is an expert in plant breeding and genetics of polyploid grasses. He heads the USDA breeding of perennial grasses (switchgrass, big bluestem, etc.) in Lincoln, Neb., after spending nearly 20 years in sugarcane breeding. He makes use of genetic parameters to optimize breeding schemes used in polyploid species of perennial grasses being bred for livestock forages and bioenergy feedstocks. His research also looks to maximize genetic gains from breeding and selection by means of the “animal model” and estimation of BLUP, and breeding values. His lab integrates physiological parameters to understand the genetic bases of disease resistance and winter survival, and optimizes experimental designs and statistical analyses of genetic tests by accounting for spatial autocorrelation. Edmé received his B.S. at the School of Agronomy in Haiti and his M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Florida.

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10:55-11:15 a.m.

Erik Sacks

Associate Professor of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Presentation title: “Miscanthus as a Genetic Resource for Improving Sugarcane/Energycane”

Abstract: Miscanthus is a close relative of sugarcane that is naturally distributed throughout East Asia and Oceania from ~50°N in eastern Russia to ~20°S in New Caledonia. To date, biomass production of Miscanthus in North America and Europe has focused primarily on a single sterile triploid clone of Miscanthus ×. giganteus that was derived from a natural cross in Japan between a tetraploid M. sacchariflorus and a diploid M. sinensis; this clone was imported to Denmark in the 1930s. To guide efforts for breeding Miscanthus, and to identify Miscanthus germplasm resources for improving sugarcane, we have conducted studies of M. sinensis and M. sacchariflorus population structure based on regionwide sampling and thousands of RAD-Seq SNPs. We subsequently phenotoyped large germplasm panels of >600 individuals from each species at multiple field trial locations in Asia, North America and Europe, and conducted genomewide association studies. Within M. sinensis we identified seven geographically distinct diploid genetic groups. For M. sacchariflorus, we found three tetraploid and three diploid genetic groups.  Moreover one of the M. sacchariflorus tetraploid groups was derived from a polyploidization event that was distinct from the others, which represents an important new opportunity for developing improved triploid M.×giganteus. Individuals and genetic groups with high yields over many locations or at specific locations were identified. Additionally, we have obtained intergeneric hybrids between sugarcane and Miscanthus, and backcrosses to sugarcane. Miscanthus is an excellent potential source of novel alleles for abiotic and biotic stress tolerances for improving sugarcane. In particular, we are collaborating with colleagues at USDA Agricultural Research Service to introgress genes for resistance to key diseases of sugarcane and for tolerance to low temperature.

Bio: Sacks is an Associate Professor of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studies the genetics of rice, Miscanthus, and sugarcane to facilitate the breeding of improved cultivars that address critical societal needs, such as the sustainable production of food, fiber, and energy. By identifying genes that confer tolerance to environmental stresses, such as cold, heat, or salt, and resistance to diseases and pests, he allows farmers to do more with less by reducing the risks and costs of production. Sacks received his B.S. in Plant Breeding at Cornell University, and his M.S. in Horticulture and Ph.D. in Genetics at the University of California at Davis.

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11:15-11:35 a.m.

Malay Saha

Professor, Noble Research Institute LLC, Ardmore, Okla.

Presentation title: “Genetic Loci Controlling Key Characteristics of Switchgrass for Biofuel Production”

Abstract: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) is being considered as a feedstock for biofuel production. Genetic improvement can be achieved through the application of marker-assisted breeding. A pseudo F1 testcross mapping population was developed by crossing between two distinct genotypes, AP13 and VS16. Data collected on growth, yield, and cell wall characteristics for three years across three locations were distributed normally and exhibited transgressive segregations. Regression analysis showed that a unit increase in lignin content reduced total sugar release by an average of 10 mg g-1. QTL analyses identified both minor and major effect QTL associated with the traits. Phenotypic variability explained by individual QTL ranged from 3.8 to 27.9%. Overall, 11 genomic regions were identified that control biomass yield and/or plant height; nine genomic regions for underlying sugar release; and 14 for lignin content. Comparing major QTL regions in the switchgrass genome, candidate genes associated with the target traits were identified that were reported to be involved in growth, development, defense system, and cell wall recalcitrance. Identification of markers and candidate genes associated with QTL along with pleotropic and epistatic effects of significant number of QTL suggest that simultaneous selection and genetic improvement of these traits are possible using molecular breeding.

Bio: Saha leads the Grass Genomics Program of the Noble Research Institute LLC (NRI) in Ardmore, Okla. His research mainly focuses on developing genetic and genomic resources of both warm- and cool-season perennial grasses. Saha has published more than 60 articles on grass molecular markers, mapping, and QTL analysis. He has more than 16 years of experiences working on breeding, genetics, and genomics of perennial grasses. He is the inventor of six small grains cultivars, which have been in cultivation in the southern United States. After obtaining his B.S. in Agriculture (Honors) from Bangladesh Agricultural University, he started his career at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute. He obtained his Ph.D. from North Dakota State University in 2002. Just after his Ph.D. studies, he joined the NRI as a postdoctoral fellow. At NRI he was hired as an Assistant Scientist in 2002 and became a full professor in 2016. Currently, Saha’s research program is mainly focused on the genetic improvement of perennial grasses for their use as forage, cover crop, and feedstock for biofuel production.

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11:35-11:55 a.m.

Robert Heckman

Postdoctoral Research Associate in Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin

Presentation title: “Discordance between Transcriptomic, Physiological, and Whole-Plant Responses to Precipitation Extremes in Panicum virgatum

Abstract: Precipitation is the major determinant of plant productivity in many systems worldwide. Responses to extreme precipitation can be driven by physiological and transcriptomic plasticity and this plasticity may differ between genotypes adapted to different conditions. Recent research suggests that the effect of precipitation on plant productivity can become nonlinear under extremely dry or extremely wet conditions. By manipulating precipitation at three levels — extremely dry, average, and extremely wet — we tested whether precipitation-induced plasticity in gene expression and physiology differed among eight genotypes of the perennial grass Panicum virgatum, and how well these lower-level responses predicted plasticity in plant productivity. Overall, transcriptomic and physiological responses differed from plant productivity. Specifically, the transcriptome and physiological responses changed less between extremely dry and average conditions than between average and extremely wet conditions; productivity responded in the opposite direction. This suggests that phenotypic plasticity at one biological level can promote opposing plastic responses at higher levels.

Bio: Heckman is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he examines the physiological and ecological consequences of drought. He received a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying plant-consumer interactions during biological invasions.

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11:55 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

Shui-zhang Fei

Professor of Horticulture, Iowa State University

Presentation title: “Genome Editing: Enhanced Tiller Production in Lowland Switchgrass Mutants Created by Gene Editing”

Abstract: Tillering is an important component trait for biomass yield in switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), an herbaceous model bioenergy crop. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 system, we generated T0 switchgrass mutants for a lowland tetraploid cultivar, Alamo for the Teosinte Branched 1 (Pvtb1) genes whose orthologs in maize and other species have been shown to be a negative regulator in tillering. Deep sequencing of the primary mutants revealed the presence of both homozygous and heterozygous mutants and chimeric mutants are common in T0. In vitro culture of nodal segments, each containing an axillary bud is effective in obtaining non-chimeric solid mutants. Inheritance of the CRISPR/Cas9-induced mutations was demonstrated, and transgene-free switchgrass mutants were obtained. By comparing the tiller numbers of mutants for Pvtb1a, Pvtb1b, Pvtb1a-tb1b and the wild type plants, we show that Pvtb1 genes negatively regulate tillering in switchgrass, where Pvtb1b appears to have a major effect. Transcriptome analysis showed that 831 genes were differentially expressed in the Pvtb1a-tb1b knockdown mutant compared to the wild type plant. Gene Ontology (GO) analysis revealed that downregulation of Pvtb1 genes affects multiple biological processes.

Bio: Fei’s current research is on establishing and using gene editing tools in perennial grasses to study functions of genes that regulate growth, development or environmental stress tolerance. He published extensively on QTL mapping, transcriptomic analysis and transgenic research related to freezing tolerance in ryegrass and the model grass brachypodium. Another research focus of Fei’s lab is on the use of cool-season perennial grasses as groundcover for maize and soybean production. Fei has served as an Associate Editor for Crop Science and an e-book editor for Genetics and Genomics of Polyploidy Plants. He teaches Growth and Development of Perennial Grasses and Crop Genetics. Fei obtained his B.S. in Agronomy and M.S. in Horticulture from China Agricultural University and his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln with a focus on turfgrass biotechnology. In 2011, he was a Visiting Professor at the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked on self-incompatibility in Miscanthus.

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12:15-1 p.m. — Lunch buffet

1-2:50 p.m. — Session 2.1: Microbiomes and Ecosystem Services, Part 1

1-1:30 p.m.

Virginia Jin

Research Soil Scientist, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Neb.

Presentation title: “Biomass Harvest Timing
and Removal Rate Affect Bioenergy Crop Water Use on Marginally Productive Cropland”

Abstract: Ligno-cellulosic feedstock production on marginally productive croplands is expected to provide substantial ecosystem service benefits, including water conservation. Long-term field research directly comparing crop water use by annual vs. perennial bioenergy feedstock crops, however, is limited. Here, we evaluated seven years (2012-18) of soil water availability to 120 cm depth under switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L., var. Cave-in-Rock) and no-till continuous corn (Zea mays L.). The effect of harvest timing on switchgrass (anthesis vs. post-killing frost) and harvested stover amount on corn (0% vs. 50% removal) on soil water availability over the growing season were assessed. Crop water use varied across years, depending on timing and amount of precipitation, but biomass harvest practices consistently affected patterns of water use each year. The percent of available soil water depleted by switchgrass over the growing season was generally higher for switchgrass harvested at anthesis compared to later post-killing frost harvest. Although total water use by post-frost harvested switchgrass were expected to be higher than anthesis-harvested grass because of total biomass differences, greater productivity of late-harvested switchgrass likely provided a thicker litter layer that protected soils against evaporative losses. For no-till continuous corn, removing 50% of stover resulted in greater depletion of available soil water compared to retaining stover, again likely due to the lack of a physical barrier protecting soils from evaporative losses. Patterns in soil water depletion were similar across all cropping systems early in the growing season, then tended to diverge by management system at crop canopy closure (mid-late July). Overall, our results supported expectations that perennial bioenergy grass production conserves more soil water compared to removing stover from no-till corn on marginally productive land, but the extent to which soil water is conserved will depend on biomass harvest timing and amount in both cropping systems.

Bio: Jin is a Research Soil Scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Lincoln, Neb. She has worked in soil and ecosystem sciences for the last 25 years. Her current research focuses on assessing how conservation vs conventional management strategies affect soil carbon and nutrient cycling, soil microbial communities, and system greenhouse gas emissions. Taken together, these areas of research contribute to a better understanding of how management affects soil quality, production sustainability, and system resilience to climate changes. Jin is an active member of research and academic communities and serves as adjunct faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. She holds a B.S. in Biology from Duke University and attained both her M.S. in Forest Resources and Ph.D. in Plant Biology from the University of Georgia.

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1:30-1:50 p.m.

Catherine Stewart

Soil Scientist, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Fort Collins, Colo.

Presentation title: “Perennial Bioenergy Crops Continue to Improve Marginal Soils after 16 Years”

Abstract: Perennial bioenergy crops and conservation agricultural management practices could improve soil quality, water and nutrient retention, and soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration on marginal croplands. However, perennial crops slow nutrient cycling and SOC formation, and stabilized SOC is vulnerable to subsequent conversion back to row-crops. We evaluated surface soil properties (0-30cm) over 16 years for a rainfed study of N fertilizer rate (0, 60, 120, and 180 kg N ha-1) and harvest management on switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L., harvested in August and post-frost) and no-tilled corn (NT-C, Zea mays L., with and without 50% stover removal)) established on a marginal soil in the western U.S. Corn Belt. We measured a variety of soil quality indicators including SOC, aggregate stability, SMB-C, bulk density (BD), pH, extractable-P and K. After 16 years, surface soils in this system have not achieved equilibrium and continue to accrue SOC, with concomitant increases in soil aggregation and SMB-C compared to baseline. Increases were generally 100% greater under switchgrass compared to NT-corn. Bulk density declined 10-15% under switchgrass, but not under NT-corn. Long-term residue removal under NT-corn showed few effects on SMB-C and aggregate stability, despite 59% lower surface SOC stocks. Replacement of switchgrass cultivars showed very little detrimental impact on SOC and other soil quality indicators. In contrast to model predictions that suggest the greatest rate of soil change is immediately post land-use conversion, our results suggest that perennial systems are sensitive to climate-related resource pulses that provide large inputs of root C and need long-term measurements to accurately quantify bioenergy impacts on the soil resource.

Bio: Stewart is a Soil Scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Fort Collins, Colo. She has a Ph.D. in Ecology from Colorado State University. Her research focuses on best management practices such as no till, crop rotation, and perennials on soil carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas balance, and soil health.

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1:50-2:10 p.m.

Kevin Comer

Senior Project Manager, Antares Group Inc.

Presentation title: “Landscape Design for Sustainable Bioenergy Systems: Project Background and Update”

Abstract: Antares Group and a team of federal, state, and local government organizations, private-sector team members, national energy and agricultural labs, and universities are engaged in a five-year demonstration project to develop and implement emerging tools and methods for Landscape Design for Sustainable Bioenergy Systems. The project is cost-shared by the U.S. Department of Energy. When fully developed, documented, and demonstrated in commercially-relevant bioenergy supply sheds, the landscape-design activities, associated enabling tools and practices, and the field-level sustainability and logistics system results will advance state-of-the-art sustainable bioenergy landscape design processes that will support current and future cellulosic biorefineries and the emerging bioenergy and bioproducts industries. This project is using new and emerging subfield analytical software that will enable management decisions via precision-agronomics, to improve profitability and sustainability of biomass harvest operations and decision-making processes while helping to create a pathway for increasing sustainable supplies from herbaceous biomass. These tools and methods will allow the identification of optimum areas to incorporate perennial energy crops and conservation practices into corn and soybean producing fields in a manner that is both economically and environmentally beneficial. The foundation of the project’s multistage, stakeholder outreach plan is to leverage existing federal, state, and local conservation programs, coupled with a transformative approach of integrating herbaceous energy crops into the bioenergy supply mix to supplement agricultural residues. The project team has harvested thousands of acres of agricultural residues and warm season grass energy crops. The team has also leveraged existing conservation programs to establish about 3,000 acres of warm season grass energy crops on expired CRP and converted row crop acres. These fields are being monitored and sampled for soil health impacts from perennial grass establishment. The project’s activities are coordinated with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), and are aligned with their aggressive efforts through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to reduce nutrient run-off that contributes to gulf hypoxia and other negative impacts to water quality.

Bio: Comer is a mechanical engineer specializing in energy and environmental systems. He has recent experience in the following areas: project and team management for multiyear, multipartner team efforts for development and implementation of renewable energy technologies and applications (biomass and solar); project management and performance assessment for installation of solar photovoltaic systems; feasibility and design studies for solar photovoltaic systems; R&D and market assessments for advanced energy systems; power plant performance testing and analysis; industrial and commercial energy efficiency auditing and feasibility studies; biomass repowering and cofiring in fossil fuel-fired boilers; performance and economic modeling for energy systems; developing custom spreadsheets and models for evaluating technical and economic performance of energy systems; environmental permitting for power generation projects; feasibility and design studies for anaerobic digestion systems; and public outreach for “green” energy.

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2:10-2:30 p.m.

Mark Burnham

Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Presentation title: “Biological Nitrification Inhibition in the Rhizosphere of Energy Sorghum”

Abstract: The net environmental benefit of bioenergy crops depends in part on how they impact agroecosystem nutrient cycling. The addition of nitrogen (N) fertilizer to crops affects ground and stream water by increasing leaching of nitrate (NO3), and increases emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. Compared to perennial biofuel crops, high-yielding energy sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) has the potential for more widespread adoption because it readily fits into the annual crop rotation. However, we know little about how a transition to sorghum would affect the ecosystem-level N cycle. One potential mechanism is through the exudation of biological nitrification inhibiting (BNI) compounds from sorghum root hairs, reducing the production of NO3– that leads to both N2O emissions and NO3– leaching. We measured the effect of sorghum root exudates on rhizosphere soil processes and microbial communities across four N fertilization rates (0-168 kg N ha-1) at the University of Illinois Energy Farm in Urbana, Ill. Across all dates, sorghum inhibited potential nitrification by 8.6% in the rhizosphere relative to bulk soil (P = 0.028). Mid-growing season, when plants were growing fastest, sorghum inhibited potential nitrification by an average of 16% (± 4.8%). This inhibition was stronger in unfertilized plots (26.8%) compared to fertilized plots (11.6%) (P = 0.025). In addition, potential denitrification was stimulated by 36.6% in the sorghum rhizosphere compared to bulk soil (P = 0.01), and N2O flux from sorghum fields was higher than from maize. Although sorghum has the capacity to limit NO3– production, this effect diminishes at high fertilization levels. The decline of BNI with fertilizer addition indicates that BNI is likely facultatively expressed to reduce N loss as NO3– and increase N retention in the soil. As a result, leaching and gaseous N losses could increase exponentially with fertilizer application rate and reduce the ecological sustainability of the system if high fertilizer inputs are used to maximize yield. Ongoing work includes the quantification of rhizosphere soil and the measurement of leaching rates to determine the effect of BNI on ecosystem-scale NO3– loss.

Bio: Burnham is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the lab of Wendy Yang at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As an ecosystem ecologist doing research in the sustainability theme of the DOE Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI), he studies how emerging bioenergy crops affect the cycling of nitrogen in the soil. In particular, Burnham focuses on how plants control microbial processes in the soil to change the leaching of nitrate into groundwater and the emission of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Prior to learning about bioenergy cropping systems, he studied forest ecosystem nitrogen cycling during his doctoral work at West Virginia University.

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2:30-2:50 p.m.

Jules Cacho

Postdoctoral Appointee, Argonne National Laboratory Environmental Sciences Division

Presentation title: “Reducing Nutrient Losses from Intensively Managed Agricultural Landscapes by Integrating Perennial Bioenergy Crops”

Abstract: Integrating perennial bioenergy crops in marginal lands within intensively managed agricultural landscapes is gaining increasing interest due to its potential to minimize the environmental impacts of commodity crop production and address the indirect land use change concerns of large-scale dedicated lignocellulosic bioenergy crop production. This presentation will discuss marginal land classification criteria, the technical approach in mapping marginal lands, and the projected sediment and nutrient loss reductions in changing from business-as-usual scenario to an integrated agricultural landscape with switchgrass as the bioenergy crop using a group of eight-digit hydrologic unit code (HUC-8) watersheds in Illinois as study sites.

Bio: Cacho is a Postdoctoral Appointee with the Argonne National Laboratory’s Environmental Science Division. His work includes studying at the field and watershed scales and the effectiveness of perennial bioenergy crops in 1) providing biomass to satisfy requirements of the Energy Independence Security Act (EISA) of 2007; and 2) delivering environmental and ecosystem services focused on water quantity and quality. Cacho is developing machine learning-based models for predicting biomass yield and composition as well as water quality forecasting, and phytoremediation of soils impacted by industrial activities.

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2:50-3:05 p.m. — Break

3:05-4:55 p.m. — Session 2.2: Microbiomes and Ecosystem Services, Part 2

3:05-3:35 p.m.

Angela Kent

Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Presentation title: “Selecting for Sustainability: Microbial Community Structure and Function as a Selectable Phenotype of the Plant Genome”

Abstract: Plant-microbe interactions in the rhizosphere govern availability of nutrients and are a target for improving agricultural sustainability. However, the ability of modern crops to recruit and structure their microbiome may have been altered by domestication and breeding. Selection for crop plants based on aboveground traits in high-nutrient environments may have inadvertently led to large changes to belowground plant physiology and relationships with the soil microbiome. In doing so, we have likely altered microbiome functions that contribute to sustainability and environmental quality (e.g. nutrient acquisition, nutrient retention, and GHG production). Indeed, sustainable production of major crops may not be achievable if current cultivars do not have the capacity to benefit from the soil microbiome and its nutrient cycling functions. The first step to investigate this is to examine the structure and function of the microbiome as a function of plant genotype, with a specific focus on N cycling functional groups. The functional capacity of the rhizosphere microbiome and the benefit to the host plant, as well as ecosystem services such as nutrient cycling and greenhouse gas emissions, vary with the composition and abundance of microbial assemblages. We hypothesized that plant genotypes differ in their ability to recruit microbial functional groups, and ultimately that the functional profile of the microbial community can be treated as a selectable plant phenotype and optimized through plant breeding. We used targeted functional metagenomic sequencing to survey the rhizosphere of diverse maize genotypes to compare their capability to recruit microbial nitrogen cycling functional groups, and examined rates of nitrogen transformations. Significantly different N cycling microbial communities were observed among maize genotypes that represent the endpoints of directed evolution. Our results allow the linkage of host-associated microbial communities and ecosystem function and suggest that there is genetic capacity to optimize recruitment of N cycling functional groups, and improve crop sustainability. Understanding this relationship will allow breeders and ecosystem scientists to select crop cultivars that interact with the nitrogen cycle in predictable beneficial ways to improve the efficiency and sustainability of agriculture, while protecting environmental quality.

Bio: Kent is a Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her microbial ecology research program is focused on characterizing and understanding the ecological drivers of microbial populations involved in key transformations in the nitrogen cycle that impact both plant productivity and environmental quality, as well as plant-microbe interactions. This work employs the tools of molecular biology, biogeochemistry, and community ecology to identify microbial functional groups and their activity in natural, engineered, and managed ecosystems. Much of her current work involves treating the plant microbiome as an extended phenotype of the plant genome.

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3:35-3:55 p.m.

Dallas Glazik

Farm Bill Biologist, Pheasants Forever

Presentation title: “Pollinating Pocketbooks”

Abstract: Glazik will share insights on how biodiversity and conservation can increase profit margins, boost yields, and cut expenses on the Illinois landscape.

Bio: Glazik is a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist covering East Central Illinois counties. He grew up on a diverse farm in Ford County, Ill., and now works with landowners/operators to increase their biodiversity in order to conserve wildlife, soil, and clean water.

More about Glazik >>>


3:55-4:15 p.m.

Erin Meier

Director, Green Lands Blue Waters

Presentation title: “Green Lands Blue Waters: A Coalition for Continuous Living Cover”

Abstract: Green Lands Blue Waters (GLBW) is a vision for productive, profitable agriculture based on the straightforward concept of getting as much value as possible from farms by growing crops that keep the soil covered year-round: Farming with Continuous Living Cover (CLC). The value of CLC farming comes in yields and profits, as well as through improved soil health, cleaner water, new economic opportunities, more wildlife, reduced risk, and resiliency in the face of a changing climate. GLBW supports the development of and transition to a new generation of multifunctional agricultural systems in the Upper Mississippi River Basin that integrate CLC into the agricultural landscape. GLBW highlights models of positive agricultural transformation that can inspire and inform agricultural stakeholders and practices across the nation.

Bio: Meier is Director of Green Lands Blue Waters, a collaborative initiative focused on shifting the agricultural landscape of the Upper Mississippi River Basin to more acres of continuous living cover to improve water quality, soil health, and agricultural and community resilience. Previously, she served for 14 years as Executive Director of the University of Minnesota Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. Meier has more than 20 years of experience and training in sustainable agriculture, local food systems, food access, natural resource conservation, clean energy, community engagement and development, and facilitating cross-sector work groups and networks. She holds an M.S. in Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University and a B.S. in Geography from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

More about Meier and GLBW >>>


4:15-4:35 p.m.

Steve John

Co-Founder and Executive Director, Agricultural Watershed Institute

Presentation title: “The Perennial Biomass Initiative: Scientist-Stakeholder Collaboration for the Next Landscape Transformation”

Abstract: A century ago, central Illinois farmers, businesses, and scientists played major roles in changing the agricultural landscape through production and processing of soybeans. After World War II, availability of inexpensive manufactured nitrogen fertilizer helped drive a shift from mixed grain-livestock operations to grain-only farming in much of the Corn Belt. Drawing on this history, this presentation will describe a cross-sector initiative for a 21st century paradigm shift featuring perennial biomass crops to enhance agriculture’s economic, environmental, and social triple bottom line. A basic goal is to significantly increase Midwest farm acreage in perennial biomass crops managed for coproduction of agricultural goods and ecosystem services including greenhouse gas emission reduction, improved water quality and hydrology, healthy soil, and habitat/biodiversity. The theory of change involves synergistic efforts among universities, farmers and landowners, entrepreneurs and agri-industry, nonprofits, government, investors and philanthropists.

Bio: John is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Agricultural Watershed Institute (AWI), a nonprofit organization established in 2003. AWI’s mission is to conduct research and educational programs on practices and policies that improve water quality, maintain or restore ecosystem health, and conserve land and water resources in agricultural watersheds. He serves on the Steering Committee of the Green Lands Blue Waters Consortium.

More about AWI >>>


4:35-4:55 p.m.

Gregory McIsaac

Associate Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign



Wayne Anderson

Former Principal Engineer, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Presentation title: “Potential Roles for Perennial Grasses in Reducing Nitrogen and Phosphorus Pollution in Corn Belt Rivers”

Abstract: Corn and soybean fields are leading sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of rivers draining the Corn Belt and contributing to hypoxia in the northern Gulf of Mexico. To address this issue, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and other states have developed nutrient loss reduction strategies that include estimates of reductions of nitrate and phosphorus losses from cropland that may be achieved by converting row crops to perennial crops and implementing perennial buffers between row crop fields and waterways. This presentation will describe these estimated nutrient loss reductions, the research behind these estimates, and challenges to implementation of the strategies.

Bios: McIsaac is an Associate Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also an Adjunct Research Scientist with the Agricultural Watershed Institute based in Decatur, Ill. Anderson retired as Principal Engineer at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he oversaw the development of the state’s nutrient reduction strategy. He is also on the steering committee for the Green Lands Blue Waters Consortium, which advocates for the adoption of continuous living cover in agricultural systems.

More about McIsaac >>>

More about Anderson >>>

4:55-5 p.m. — Break

5-6 p.m. — Poster Competition



  • Soyeon Choi, Graduate Student, University of Georgia at Athens: “Ecotypic Variations in Candidate Genes Underlying Flowering Time QTL in Switchgrass” — Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is an outcrossing perennial grass and native to North America that occurs in two ecotypes: upland and lowland. While upland ecotypes are mostly prevalent in Canada and northern United States, lowland ecotypes are found dominantly in Mexico and southern U.S. The evolution of the two ecotypes in distinct environments has led to phenotypic variation, especially in flowering time, underlying potentially genomic variation. As a putative biofuel crop, a delay in flowering in switchgrass is associated with longer vegetative stage and therefore leads to more biomass production. Using a bi-parental pseudo-F2 mapping population established by crossing two distinct ecotypes of switchgrass, AP13 (lowland, female) and VS16 (upland, male), followed by crossing two F1 siblings of this cross in southeastern U.S. (Watkinsville, Ga.) and phenotyped over two consecutive years, we aim to identify candidate genes associated with flowering time via QTL analysis. Tetraploid lowland accessions, Alamo (AP13) and Kanlow, and tetraploid upland accessions, Dacotah and Summer (VS16) grown under two different day-length treatments and harvested at two different time points were used to conduct RNA-Seq. The genes underlying flowering time were further investigated by analyzing expression level between the RNA-Seq data of the two ecotypes. Two significant QTL were consistently detected across years and replicates on Chr05K and Chr08N. 145 genes were found within QTL peaks using switchgrass assembly V5.1 and the annotation from RNA-Seq data. Blast results of the 47 candidate genes on Chr05K identify three genes orthologous to LRK42, HASTY and FHY3 in Arabidopsis and one gene orthologous to Ehd3 in rice, all involved in reproduction or regulation of circadian rhythm. Blast results of the 98 candidate genes on Chr08N revealed three genes orthologous to CRL5 in rice, LAX3 in Medicago truncatula and LAX14 in Arabidopsis involved in auxin (key hormone regulating flowering) production or induced by auxin-activated signaling pathway, and one gene orthologous to RPP8 in Arabidopsis, involved in light signaling response. None of these genes were differentially expressed between the two ecotypes from the RNA-seq dataset except LRK42, which is purported to be involved in bacterial defense and pollen development. However, at the genomic level, ecotype-specific variation leading to amino-acid changes were observed in the candidate genes. In the Ehd3 gene, a gene regulating flowering in rice, upland accessions have a homozygous non-synonymous substitution relative to the lowland ecotype. This variation could lead to differentiation in mRNA or protein stability between the two ecotypes. Flowering QTL data from an additional year in the mapping population as well as candidate loci from an association analysis in a GWAS panel will help us to better understand ecotypic variations on genomic level associated with flowering time.
  • Ryan Crawford, Staff/Graduate Student, Cornell University: “Effect of Soil Moisture on Yield and Quality of Fertilized and Unfertilized Switchgrass Plots in a Field with a Soil Moisture Gradient” — Soil moisture may affect the yield and quality of switchgrass, impacting the agronomic decision of whether to fertilize. To explore this, an experiment was planted in a randomized complete block design consisting of strip plots of three cropping treatments replicated four times. The treatments were switchgrass (Panicum virgatum v. Shawnee) (SWG), switchgrass+ fertilizer N (SWGN) and pre-existing fallow control (CTRL). The field was established in 2011 on a fallow site in Ithaca, NY, with strip plots intentionally laid out to capture the continuum of soil moisture conditions that varied naturally from moderately well-drained to poorly drained. Five permanent sampling subplots were established along the natural moisture gradients of each strip-plot, as determined by time-domain reflectometry (TDR), and the subplot’s soil moisture was more precisely quantified by repeated TDR measurements and expressed as a proportion of the field mean. Each fall from 2013 onward, subplots were sampled for yield and a portion of this sample was analyzed for mineral, fiber, and sugar content via near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy. Analyses of variance was performed on yield and each mineral and fiber component with main effect treatment along with interacting covariate soil moisture. Yield and all components except for sugars varied significantly among treatments. Covariate soil moisture varied significantly for yield and some quality components. Where there was a significant interaction between treatment and covariate soil moisture, differences tended to be greater between treatment CTRL and the two switchgrass treatments than between the SWG and SWGN treatments. Notably, yields at the driest subplots were comparable between SWG and SWGN, but at the wettest portions of the field SWGN yields were greater than SWG yields.
  • Tyler Ferris, Undergraduate, University of Nebraska at Lincoln: “Performance of Panicum virgatum Cultivars at Varying Levels of Competition with Bromus inermis and Differing Amounts of N Fertilizer” — With growing demands for ethanol, many researchers are turning to Panicum virgatum (switchgrass) as a feedstock of cellulosic ethanol. This study was conducted to examine the germination, biomass, nitrogen, survival, and chlorophyll absorbance of two cultivars of switchgrass grown in competition with Bromus inermus (smooth brome) and with two different levels of nitrogen fertilizer. I predicted that these factors would affect the aforementioned variables, as nitrogen promotes plant growth, competition from other plant species detracts from nutrient availability, and these cultivars are physiologically different. The experiment was conducted in a greenhouse as 12 treatments replicated 20 times. Results indicated that the Liberty cultivar had lower germination, but higher survivorship than the Cave-in-Rock cultivar and that treatments with higher levels of competition resulted in lower biomass. Additionally, control treatments of both switchgrass cultivars grown in the absence of smooth brome had the highest levels of chlorophyll absorbance, and competition treatments had overall lower levels of nitrogen than control treatments. Both levels of nitrogen fertilizer decreased chlorophyll absorbance. Furthermore, switchgrass cultivars grown in competition with smooth brome had lower levels of nitrogen compared to control treatments. My results also indicate that during establishment, competition from other species has a greater effect than nitrogen fertilizer. Replicating this experiment for a multi-year randomized block setup would be ideal for extending this study.
  • Grace John, Postdoc, University of Texas at Austin: “Genetic Control over Leaf Vascular Anatomy in Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)” — Leaves are the primary organ for photosynthesis and a major bottleneck in the plant hydraulic pathway. Both inside and outside the leaf xylem, hydraulic conductance and vulnerability to failure are fundamentally linked to anatomical structures. However, the genetic mechanisms driving the anatomical variance that constrains the trade-off between hydraulic safety and efficiency remain untested. We used Panicum virgatum, a C4 grass for which adaptation to climate and growing season across a broad latitudinal gradient has driven divergence of resource acquisitive and conservative ecotypes, to evaluate the genetic architecture underlying leaf anatomy. We found significant genetic variance for anatomical traits across these ecotypes and used a genetic mapping population to identify quantitative trait loci (QTL) associated with vascular anatomy and patterns of trait integration. While shifts in high order traits, e.g. xylem conductance, are often hypothesized to result from many genetic changes of small effect, we found few QTL of large effect for sizes of veins and conduits in mid- and secondary veins and intervenal distance. Moreover, we found co-occurrence of cell size QTL across tissues and aim to relate these traits to leaf gas exchange. Our results show strong genetic control over ecotypic divergence in plant water use strategies.
  • Albina Khasanova, Graduate Student, University of Texas at Austin: “The Genetic Architecture of Shoot and Root Trait Divergence Between Upland and Lowland Ecotypes of a Perennial Grass” — Recent climate trends are driving rapid shifts in global precipitation patterns, leading to changes in soil water availability that can impact plant performance and distribution. Soil water availability is an especially important driver of contemporary evolution and ecotype formation in plant populations. In the process of ecotype formation, populations can diverge across many traits and exhibit different niche characteristics, which requires coordination between plant organ systems. For instance, although plant water loss is largely governed by shoot systems, root systems determine water access and constrain shoot water status. Understanding the genetic architecture of root traits and their relationship with shoot traits helps to develops a more complete picture of the adaptive differences that arise between ecotypes in response to changes in water availability. Panicum hallii is an emerging model system for C4 perennial grasses, including the important biofuel crop switchgrass (P. virgatum). Here, we produced an intercross between individuals of the xeric and mesic ecotypes of P. hallii, utilized a single seed decent method to generate a population of recombinant inbred lines (RIL) at the F7 generation and subsequently constructed a new genetic map based on whole genome re-sequencing. Utilizing extensive phenotyping of root and shoot traits and a quantitative genetic approach, we identified several genomic ‘hotspots’ which control suites of correlated root and shoot traits, thus indicating genetic coordination between plant organ systems in the process of ecotypic divergence. In addition, we found that genomic regions of colocalized QTL for the majority of shoot and root growth related traits were independent of colocalized QTL for shoot and root resource acquisition traits. Finally, we confirmed major finding from the greenhouse in a field setting.
  • Mahbobeh Lesani, Graduate Student, University of Oklahoma: “Environmental Effects on Forage Quality Quantitative Trait Loci in Switchgrass” — Generating biofuels and chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass has potential to increase sustainability. The composition of biomass influences biorefining yield and conversion efficiency. Toward optimizing composition and related physiological traits across the switchgrass production range, this project seeks a deep understanding of the genetic and environmental determinants of natural composition variation through compositional analysis of a switchgrass upland-lowland F2 population at 10 sites at different latitudes in the central U.S. Composition is being predicted based on near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS), since direct measurements of thousands of samples is not feasible. Results for six classic forage traits (in vitro dry matter digestibility, acid & neutral detergent fiber, nitrogen, acid detergent lignin, and ash) for 2016 mid- and end-of-season harvests show a large environmental influence on most compositional features. Genetics is also important as the progeny show greater diversity than the parents and grandparents (i.e., transgressive segregation) for some traits. We find 68 forage quality quantitative trait loci (QTL), 31 mid-season and 39 end-of-season (LOD > 3). Seven QTL are highly significant (LOD > 10), with 6 of these for the end-of-season when genetic effects are higher relative to the mid-season. Fifty-three QTL show different strengths in different sites, consistent with environment being a stronger contributor to variance than heritability for almost all sites and traits. These results demonstrate the importance of environment for biomass composition and can be used to optimize switchgrass cultivars for growth across its range and in different regions to promote sustainable biorefining.
  • Xingxing Li, Postdoc, Michigan State University: “Untargeted Metabolomics Analysis for Switchgrass Reveals Metabolite Differences among Tissue Types, Developmental Stages, and Ecotypes” — Plants produce a variety of specialized metabolites and some of these compounds are documented to play ecological roles. For example, diterpenoid specialized metabolites such as ent-kaurane, function as anti-microbial phytoalexins and aromatic specialized metabolites, are involved in plant resistance to abiotic stresses like UV-B radiation. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a North American native perennial C4 grass, and a promising bioenergy crop for production on non-agricultural land. In general, both the northern upland and southern lowland ecotypes are tolerant to marginal soil conditions including low fertility and drought. Upland switchgrass exhibits better winter hardiness, while lowland ecotypes are flooding tolerant and yield higher biomass. The GLBRC Aim 6 switchgrass research community is trying to improve the yield of switchgrass. This will require enhancing the plant traits leading to those ecological adaptations. We are contributing to this goal by focusing on switchgrass specialized metabolites with a long-term goal of genetically manipulating production of these compounds to improve plant biotic and abiotic stresses tolerance. The starting goals of this study were to identify switchgrass metabolites that vary among different tissues types, development stages, and ecotypes. Switchgrass extracts were analyzed using an untargeted liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) approach. The sample panel included six cultivars from each of the two ecotypes, three tissue types and three developmental stages. In addition, leaf samples collected during an artificial chilling assay were also analyzed for changes in metabolites using the same untargeted approach.
  • Soo-Hyun Lim, Postdoc, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “Effect of Phenology Changes of Perennial Plants Driven By Climate Change on Plant Growth” — Global climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme cold and heat waves, and uncoupling spring temperature changes from changes in day length (photoperiod). The synchrony of temperature and photoperiod influences the timing of development of plant species. Temperature driven dormancy breaking under abnormal photoperiodic conditions can alter plant phenology and have adverse impacts on plant productivity and ecosystem species balances. Understanding how plant phenology has changed and how it will respond to rapid changes in temperature is crucial to understanding the impacts of global change on ecosystem balances of productivity and species competition.
  • Cheng-Hsien Lin, Graduate Student, Purdue University: “Measurements of N2O and NH3 Emissions from Maize Cropping Systems Using a Novel Open Path Method” — N2O and NHemitted from agricultural soils are mainly driven by the application of nitrogen (N) fertilizers (e.g., anhydrous ammonia). N losses via gas emissions not only result in lower nitrogen use efficiency (NEU) but adverse impacts on the environment. For instance, N2O is one of the strong greenhouse gases with high global warming potential (i.e., 300 times of CO2), and NH3 potentially influence soil, water, and air quality via acid deposition, eutrophication and the formation of particulate aerosols. Gas emissions from soils are continuous, and dynamics and episodic due to the soil heterogeneity. Chamber methods are subject to the inherent limitations that substantially lead to the uncertainties in estimations of gas emissions, such as the small footprint (~ 0.6 m2) and the wild sampling interval (~ once a week). Furthermore, chambers are limited to measure sticky gases (i.e., NH3). An open-path technique, integrated open path gas sensors and micrometeorological measurements, is capable of acquiring the “real-time” data at a relatively high temporal resolution (minutes) and provides the gas emissions with a greater spatial representative (> 100 m2). In this study, we determined N2O/NH3 emissions from the continuous maize fields with different field and N management practices (i.e. Chisel plow vs. No-till (NT), Full (200 kg NH3-N/ha) vs. Split (100+100 kg NH3-N/ha), and Fall vs. Spring application) using static chambers and the open-path technique. The results showed that the full application led to the higher N2O/NH3 emissions than the split application. The long-term NT practice potentially mitigated N2O emissions. Furthermore, the chamber method underestimated N2O emissions (> 10 times) compared to the open-path method during the daytime because of the lack of considerations of turbulence effect on gas emissions.
  • Alice MacQueen, Postdoc, University of Texas at Austin: “Genome-Wide Association in the Panicum virgatum Diversity Panel and the Switchgrass GWAS R Package” — In 2018, a switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) diversity panel over 600 genotypes was planted at 15 sites along a latitudinal gradient in North America. This panel is planted at locations spanning more than 20 degrees of latitude, from central Mexico to South Dakota. Across these locations, collaborators are collecting multiple phenotypes of interest to understand the genetics of biomass accumulation and plant adaptation to the environment. A dataset of 23 million SNPs present in four or more genotypes has recently been created, allowing for genome-wide association (GWAS) in this diversity panel. However, an analysis pipeline is needed to enable collaborators to conduct GWAS on their traits of interest. Here, we present on the status of the switchgrass GWAS R package, a set of functions in R to enable GWAS on the switchgrass diversity panel. We demonstrate the use of this package and the associated pipeline on traits collected on the switchgrass diversity panel during the 2018 growing season.
  • Mitra Mazarei, Postdoc, University of Tennessee at Knoxville: “Development and Optimization of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle High-Throughput Phenotyping of Field-Grown Switchgrass” — Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sensor-based analysis is an emerging and powerful platform for high-throughput plant phenotyping under field conditions. In this study, we explored the potential of UAV-based sensing to measure plant height and perimeter as well as chlorophyll content of field-grown switchgrass. A pilot field experiment consisted of 120 lowland (tetraploid) switchgrass accessions was performed in Knoxville, Tenn., from August to December 2018. Manual and UAV-derived measurements for plant height and perimeter using high resolution camera showed strong positive correlations. Using UAV-based multispectral camera, the chlorophyll in leaves of switchgrass plants could be detected. The methods developed here will be incorporated in a large-scale switchgrass genome-wide association study (GWAS) analysis experiment to identify loci associated with high biomass yield and nitrogen use efficiency with subsequent integration into genomic selection models.
  • Andrew Muchlinski, Graduate Student, Virginia Tech: “Characterization and Functional Analysis of Terpenoid Specialized Metabolism in Panicum virgatum” — Plants produce a large number of specialized or secondary compounds that aid in their reproduction and protection against biotic and abiotic stress. While chemically mediated interactions are studied to a large extent in domesticated food crops, knowledge of the function of specialized compounds in wild species or less domesticated crops used for biomass production or ecosystem restoration is still limited. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), a perennial C4 grass of the Tallgrass Prairie, represents an important species in natural and anthropogenic grasslands of North America. Its natural resilience to abiotic and biotic stress has made switchgrass a preferred bioenergy crop. We have investigated the metabolism of terpenes, representing the largest class of plant secondary metabolites, in switchgrass leaves and roots in response to herbivory or defense hormone treatments and the application of drought. With a focus on volatile terpene metabolites, we functionally characterized over thirty genes (terpene synthases, TPSs), of which one third could be correlated with the production and release of volatile monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes that likely function in direct chemical defense or in the attraction of insect predators or parasitoids. Drought stress application caused switchgrass roots to accumulate a larger amount of oxygenated terpenes and presumably non-volatile terpenes, the function of which in direct or indirect drought stress protection requires further investigation. We also examined the metabolic dynamics and role of the monoterpene (-)-borneol, which accumulates at high concentrations in the roots of switchgrass and to a lower extent in the roots of the close relative Setaria viridis, in root microbe interactions. More specifically, we hypothesized that this volatile compound represents a host specific chemical factor that effects the composition of the microbial community in the rhizosphere and endosphere of the root. Using an RNAi based approach by knocking down the borneol terpene synthase TPS04, we found no immediate evidence that borneol significantly modifies bacterial communities in the root. Further studies in Setaria and equivalent RNAi lines in switchgrass will provide more detailed and needed insight to decipher the role of monoterpene accumulation in grasses interactions with mutualists, pathogens, and pests. Overall, results from this work provide a genetic baseline for investigating biological function of terpenoids in switchgrass and their contribution to stress resilience.
  • Nathan Palmer, Staff, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service: “Molecular Responses of Lowland and Upland Switchgrass Cultivars to Infection by Fungal Rust” — Sustainable, high biomass production from switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is essential for its use as a biofuel feedstock. However, both biomass production and biomass quality are negatively impacted by pathogen attack. In particular, infection by Puccinia spp that cause fungal rust has been shown to significantly reduce ethanol yields of harvested switchgrass biomass. In general, lowland switchgrass cultivars tend to be more resistant to pathogens compared to upland switchgrass cultivars. A better understanding of the mechanisms behind this resistance will be advantageous for switchgrass breeders and enable the incorporation resistance traits into breeding populations. Toward this end, plants at the fourth leaf stage of lowland cultivar Kanlow and upland cultivar Summer were infected with spores of Puccinia novopanici (formerly referred to as Puccina emaculata). Metabolic (metabolites and phytohormones measured by LCMS) and transcriptomic (RNA-Seq) responses relative to uninfected controls were analyzed across an 18-day time series in order to identify basal and infection response differences between Kanlow and Summer plants. Gene networks, enriched metabolic pathways, and key metabolites distinguishing the Kanlow and Summer responses to P. novopanici infection will be presented.
  • August Schetter, Graduate Student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “Nitrogen Use Efficiency of Energy Grass Sorghum” — Nitrogen is a key nutrient for plant growth and development and the cost of N fertilization could be a significant component of energy sorghum biomass production. However, N use efficiency and N requirements are not well characterized for high yielding sorghum grown for biomass production. The goal of this study is to optimize agronomic practices, nitrogen fertilization, and genetics for sustainable biomass production. The specific objectives were 1) analyzing the functional dynamics of partitioning and remobilization, of nitrogen between leaf and stem tissues; 2) determining effects of genotypes, and N fertilization on biomass yield and plant growth characteristics; and 3) determining optimal N rates for sustainable biomass production. The field study at the University of Illinois Energy Farm in Urbana, Ill., and College Station, Texas consists of four energy sorghum genotypes (TAM17500, TAM17600, TAM17800, TAM8001) and four N rates with UAN (32-0-0). Sorghum was planted at 172,974 seeds ha-1on soybean stubble using a precision planter on May 2018. Destructive samples were taken bi-weekly to access N functional dynamics throughout crop development and biomass yields were estimated by harvesting whole plots using a plot combine in September.  There was a significant genotype effect on biomass yield for both locations and highest yielding genotypes average across N rates were TAM17800 (22.5 Mg ha-1) and TAM08001 (22.4 Mg ha-1) in Urbana and TAM17600 (21.3 Mg ha-1) in College Station. Even though we did not observe a significant yield benefit of N fertilization in end of season biomass yield, N concentration in biomass tissue indicated that energy sorghum requires a minimum of 6 kg N to produce each one Mg of biomass. These results suggest energy sorghum has the ability to utilize available N from the soil and soil test for available N should be done before application of N fertilizer.
  • Madeleine Shapiro, Undergraduate, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign: “Profitability of Switchgrass Grown as Bioenergy Feedstock on Marginal Land” — Government policies regarding renewable energy production such as the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 have focused in part on the potential of cellulosic biofuels to increase domestic energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also increasing ecosystem services. As the market for biofuel feedstocks continue to grow, investigation into the farm-level economic feasibility of bioenergy crops as compared to more traditional annual crops is necessary. These bioenergy crops are often grown on marginal lands because of the higher tolerance of perennial systems to adverse conditions as compared to annual crops. Growing bioenergy crops on marginal lands has the added benefit of reducing soil erosion without detracting from food crop production. While the term marginal does not currently have a universally agreed-upon definition, for this study we will be defining marginal land as land where the revenue from current crop production is not enough to offset the economic and environmental costs of production. This includes land with exceptionally low yields as well as land where agriculture incurs a high environmental cost, such as in erosion prone land. In order to be competitive with corn and soybean production, the overall benefits of switchgrass production, economic or otherwise, must be greater than or equal to those from corn and soybean production. The objective of this study is to determine the economically profitable yield of switchgrass production on marginal land. 
  • David Thomas, Graduate Student, University of Oklahoma: “Toward Determining and Testing Genes that Control Switchgrass Internode Cellular Structure and Cell Wall Composition” — Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) is a perennial C4 bunch grass that is a promising feedstock for the production of lignocellulosic biofuels. Local environmental conditions produce phenotypic variation across the growth range of switchgrass. The Juenger Lab has established switchgrass common gardens at 10 locations in the U.S. along a latitudinal gradient from southern Texas to South Dakota to investigate ecotype divergence, local adaptation, and the spatial scale of genome-by-environment interaction across broad environmental gradients (e.g., precipitation, temperature, and soils). Each site harbors an F2 mapping population produced from a four-way cross of upland and lowland switchgrass ecotypes (AP13, WBC, VS16 and DAC = F¬¬0). Pilot data show significant anatomical and compositional variation among the F¬¬0 (grandparents) at three common garden sites in South Texas, Missouri, and Michigan. Internode traits that vary significantly among F¬¬0’s within a site and in single genotypes across sites include cell wall thickness and area in cross section, sclerenchyma cell abundance, vessel diameter, mixed linkage glucans, and lignin composition. Similarly, compositional traits predicted with NIRS of milled F¬¬0 biomass vary significantly among genotypes and across the core sites. We are expanding this analysis to characterize internode cellular architecture across the whole F2 population at one or more sites for quantitative trait locus-analysis toward identifying candidate genes. To prepare for screening gene function in switchgrass internodes, we have been testing a novel carbon nanotube-mediated transient gene expression system. Preliminary results show expression in the leaves, internode and node of switchgrass tillers after CNT-plasmid injection. Our goal is to screen candidate genes that may control the observed compositional and anatomical variation toward achieving more consistent and efficient cell wall utilization for biofuels and other bioproducts.
  • Neal Tilhou, Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin at Madison: “Preliminary Results of Anthesis Genomic Prediction in Switchgrass” — The timing of the transition from vegetative to reproductive growth has a major impact on biomass accumulation in switchgrass. Late flowering switchgrass varieties produce greater biomass in both spaced and sward conditions. Genomic prediction may allow rapid identification and selection of late flowering individuals without the time and expense of phenotyping. Initial analyses were carried out using the date of anthesis for 1,532 switchgrass individuals of upland, lowland, and hybrid ancestry. Marker data from genotype by sequencing (~450,000 markers after filtering) was used to predict anthesis date between training and validation datasets of the above individuals. Prediction accuracy between random subsets of the experiment was high, but prediction accuracy across ecotypes and ancestry groups were very weak. Further investigations for improving prediction in structured populations will be required.
  • Acer VanWallendael, Postdoc, Michigan State University: “Geographic Dependence of the Genetic Architecture of Resistance to Leaf Rust in Locally Adapted Ecotypes of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)” — Pathogens play an important role in the evolution of plant populations, but genetic mechanisms underlying disease resistance may differ greatly between geographic areas as well as over time. Local adaptation is thought to be an important step in plant evolution, and may be impacted by differential pathogen pressures in concert with abiotic factors. This study uses locally adapted ecotypes of the native perennial switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) to examine the temporal and spatial variation in the genetic architecture of resistance to fungal pathogens, namely switchgrass leaf rust (Puccinia novopanici). To identify loci underlying variation in pathogen resistance in switchgrass, we scored rust damage across an outcrossed mapping population at eight locations across the central United States from southern Texas to Michigan. We followed rust progression at these sites for three years and mapped quantitative trait loci (QTLs) using function-valued transformations of rust progression curves. Overall, we mapped 51 QTLs that varied in presence and strength over the three-year period. Two large-effect QTLs were consistently associated with variation in rust progression in multiple sites and years, and are therefore potentially the result of the same underlying resistance genes. Interestingly, these two large-effect QTLs were almost exclusively detected in northern sites. This pattern could be caused by geographic difference in genetic architecture. The distribution of rust strains or variation in climatic conditions across the field sites could result in genotype-by-environment interactions in efficacy of rust resistance loci. Beyond reducing rust damage by 34%, the beneficial alleles at the two loci also increased biomass by 44%, suggesting a direct benefit by pleiotropy or indirect benefit through genetic linkage. Our results suggest an important role for fungal pathogens in the local adaptation of switchgrass and illustrate an influential geographic component of the genetic architecture of plant disease resistance.
  • John Wrath, Undergraduate, Michigan State University: “The Pathogen-Protective Role of Leaf Endophytes in Switchgrass” — Foliar endophytes are potentially ubiquitous across plant taxa and have been found in every species examined. Much attention has been given to the mutualisms between mycorrhizal fungal colonies and their plant hosts, while less has been paid to the potentially beneficial roles of foliar fungal endophytes. These communities of endophytes are often defined negatively as nonpathogenic, but recent research is revealing that these endophytes may play a crucial role in plant health equal to that of mycorrhizal fungi. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is an important biofuel and forage crop that faces yield loss due to infection by pathogenic fungal leaf rust, Puccinia novopanici. This experiment explores the role of the endophytic community in switchgrass by inoculating rust-sensitive switchgrass genotypes with leaf endophytes from resistant genotypes. We will then measure the infection rates of leaf rust on different endophyte treatments. If successful, leaf slurry inoculation could prove to be a simple, cost effective, and easy resource for improving pathogen resistance, while decreasing reliance on fungicide.
  • Colleen Zumpf, Graduate Student, Argonne National Laboratory and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: “Willows for Energy and Ecosystem Services” — The interest in dedicated perennial energy crop production in agricultural landscapes stems from two major projected benefits. The first being the production of feedstock to supplement petroleum usage for chemicals and energy and the second being the potential provision of ecosystem services through diversified cropping systems. However, both the feedstock production and ecosystem service potential of dedicated energy cropping systems are dependent upon factors such as production location, landscape characteristics, crop type, production design, management, etc.; therefore it is important to quantify the environmental impacts and yield potential of these types of systems. This nine-year study (2011-present) evaluated the impacts of short rotation shrub willow (Salix miyabeana ‘SX61’) buffers in a corn-soybean field in central Illinois. It focused on biomass production and nutrient loss reduction as a nutrient reduction and recovery designed system targeting marginal land for production. However, as an integrated perennial crop, there was additional interest to assess what other ecosystem benefits this type of production design might provide. These additional parameters included soil health, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat provision for pollinators and pest control species. Results of this study found willow production yield on both marginal and non-marginal land to be around 5 Mg ha-1 yr-1 after three years of production, with increased yields expected through tree maturity. However, willows placed on marginal land where nutrient leaching was higher from neighboring corn and soybean was found to have a greater number of larger stems than willows on non-marginal soils where nutrient leaching was lower. Willow was found to be successful in up-taking nitrate-nitrogen leached from the neighboring corn and soybean field, reducing losses by 88% after three years of growth. This was complemented by reductions in nitrous oxide emissions from soil respiration and significantly lower nitrate availability in surface and subsurface soils. However, willow was found to be less successful at reducing reactive phosphorous loss in water leachate. There was also no significant changes in soil quality parameters such as organic matter, pH, macronutrients (total nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), or microbial community. Although willows placed on more marginal soils, did show an increasing trend in soil organic matter in subsurface soils. Soil bulk density also significantly decreased after four years of willow production on both marginal and non-marginal soils. In addition, willow buffers were found to provide habitat and forage resources during spring flowering for early pollinators as well as throughout the growing season through potential support by understory vegetation. However the study also suggests a diverse landscape with multiple landcover types including traditional row crops are important in supporting a diverse invertebrate community. This study found the design of willow integration into the corn-soybean field to be an important component in biomass and ecosystem service provision. It also highlights the potential services that this type of production system can provide.

6-7 p.m. — Dinner



7-8 a.m. — Breakfast

8-8:30 a.m. — Keynote: Calvin Ernst

Calvin Ernst

Owner/Founder, Ernst Conservation Seeds Co. and Ernst Biomass

Presentation title: “From Failure to Success with Switchgrass: A Grower’s Perspective”

Abstract: The beginning of a grower’s journey to establish a successful stand of switchgrass began with a 10-acre failure. Spanning from 1980 to the present, we will take a look back at many of the turns that switchgrass has taken Ernst, from fluctuating seed sales to the hype of its use as an energy crop. These failures and successes have allowed him to travel and work with several researchers and geneticists throughout the country. The Pennsylvania environmental community saw the potential for renewable solid fuel from native grasses and assisted Ernst with a grant to build a facility to make switchgrass pellets for residential heating. As natural gas has taken that market away, today Ernst Biomass operates year-round to manufacture warm-season grass pellets for the absorption of drilling fluid for the natural gas industry. As natural gas and solar has absorbed the focus of our energy economics, switchgrass continues to be the grass of choice for nutrient absorption, erosion control and wildlife habitat.

Bio: Ernst graduated from Penn State in 1963 with a degree in agricultural bioscience. He founded Ernst Crownvetch Farms in 1964. In the late 1980s, Calvin saw a decline in the crownvetch market. He soon shifted nearly his entire product offering to native plant seeds and changed his company’s name to Ernst Conservation Seeds Co. The company is now the largest native seed producer in the eastern United States. What began as 5 acres of crownvetch now includes nearly 10,000 acres and 400 species of native warm- and cool-season grasses, forbs and bioengineering (live plant) materials. The company employs nearly 90 people. Sons Andy and Michael Ernst are actively involved with Calvin in leading the family business. Calvin was chosen as the Agribusiness Leader of the Year by the National Agri-Marketing Association in 2018. In 2017, he accepted a nomination to serve on the new Team PA Agriculture Advisory Board, a 25-member board consisting of executive leaders representing the breadth of Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector and industries on which it depends. He received the Atlantic Seed Association’s 2015 Honorary Seedsman Award; Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Outstanding Alumnus award in 2014; the American Agriculturist Master Farmer award in 2008; and the Governor Raymond P. Shafer Distinguished Service to the Community Award in 2007.

More about Ernst and the seed company >>>

More about Ernst Biomass >>>

8:30-10 a.m. — Session 3.1: Agronomy and Sustainable Production, Part 1

8:30-9 a.m.

Fred Circle

CEO/Owner, FDC Enterprises

Presentation title: “Community-Based Closed-Loop Power Generation Utilizing SG as a Bio Feedstock Source”

Abstract: FDC Enterprises has commercialized a biomass-to-steam generation operation with the Commonwealth of Virginia, using switchgrass as its primary biofeedstock fuel source. FDCE leases local land, establishes switchgrass, and manages and harvests the crop annually. The company stores the harvested crop until needed — then processes and delivers a ready-to-burn product to the throat of the boiler house. FDCE will show a compilation of cost and value data for the project.

Bio: Circle is the CEO/owner of FDC Enterprises (FDCE), headquartered in Ohio. FDCE branched out into native prairie restoration work in 2003. To date, FDCE is approaching 400,000 acres of prairie establishment in 26 states and eastern Europe. Based on its skillsets in rapid establishment, FDCE was asked in 2006 to establish 400 acres of native prairie for an R&D project by CMI of Virginia, providing a renewable perennial bio feedstock for processing into boiler fuel for the Piedmont Geriatric Hospital — replacing wet wood and fuel oil. FDCE subsequently commercialized the project and today provides switchgrass boiler fuel year-round to the hospital boiler(s) from its 3,300 acres of Virginia-grown switchgrass.

More about FDC Enterprises >>>


9-9:20 a.m.

Arvid Boe

Professor of Agronomy, Horticulture & Plant Science, South Dakota State University

Presentation title: “Biomass of Switchgrass Monocultures vs. Binary Mixtures in Response to Spatial Heterogeneity”

Abstract: To date, candidate systems for producing herbaceous cellulosic biomass have been composed of monocultures of perennial (e.g., switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)) or annual (e.g., corn (Zea mays)) grasses. However, ecosystem goods and services could be increased dramatically with the addition of one or more species, of particularly forbs, that would increase biodiversity and provide habitat for pollinators. Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and Canada milk-vetch (Astragalus canadensis) are three species that are highly regarded for use in pollinator habitat mixes in the Midwest and northern Great Plains. Studies were conducted on prime and marginal cropland in South Dakota and Wisconsin during 2012-14 to compare switchgrass monocultures to switchgrass-forb or grass binary mixtures for end-of-season biomass production. In Wisconsin, monocultures of prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) and cup plant produced more biomass (8.1 Mg ha-1) than the switchgrass monoculture and switchgrass/cup plant mixture (5.3 Mg ha-1). In South Dakota, the switchgrass/cup plant mixture produced more biomass than the switchgrass monoculture. In a study that evaluated biomass production across an environmental gradient in eastern South Dakota, binary mixtures of switchgrass/big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and switchgrass/cup plant produced more biomass than the switchgrass monoculture at midslope and footslope positions, respectively. Also, the binary mixture of switchgrass/purple prairie clover and switchgrass/little bluestem produced similar amounts of biomass (>10 Mg ha-1). Binary mixtures of switchgrass with other native grasses and/or forbs can increase biodiversity and enhance ecosystem goods and services, relative to switchgrass monocultures, for sustainable biomass production on marginal land in the north central U.S.

Bio: Boe, a Professor of Agronomy, Horticulture & Plant Science, is project leader for forage and bioenergy crop breeding and genetics at South Dakota State University. His research interests: 1) breeding native warm-season grasses and native forbs for multiple purposes, including bioenergy, conservation, and ecosystem goods and services on marginal land; and 2) breeding alfalfa for pasture improvement and hay in semiarid regions of the northern Great Plains.

More about Boe >>>


9:20-9:40 a.m.

James Kiniry

Research Agronomist, Grassland, Soil, and Water Research Unit, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Temple, Texas

Presentation title: “Process-Based Modeling of Eastern Gamagrass”

Abstract: Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides L.) is a valuable, productive, native grass that ranges over much of the eastern and southern U.S. It is highly palatable and produces high quality forage and high yields on marginal land due to excess moisture. In this project, we are evaluating a diverse set of accessions in a research nursery; measuring critical plant parameters and environmental factors to characterize each accession; and selecting elite accessions for different site conditions (flood prone and low fertility). Sixty-five ecotypes were collected from different locations in Texas and Oklahoma and planted in a common garden at Temple, Texas. Measurements are made for plant parameters for the ALMANAC model. Nitrogen response data are being collected from four sites. The final product will be a tool to optimize which ecotype is best suited for marginally productive and excessively wet environments, as well as optimum haying intervals and optimum N application rates and dates. The developed forage model system will be used for decision-making, farm planning, and educating farmers or ranchers about potential benefits of eastern gamagrass establishment.

Bio: Kiniry is a Research Agronomist in the Grassland, Soil, and Water Research Unit of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Temple, Texas. His research has quantified the key plant parameter for simulation models and radiation use efficiency (RUE) and determined reasonable RUE values for maize, sorghum, rice, wheat, potato, eastern red cedar, and several warm-season grasses including Alamo switchgrass. This value used for plant dry matter simulation was subsequently tested over a range of environments and climatic conditions, investigating its stability and sources of variability in its value. Kiniry’s research has also resulted in a generic plant model, currently used in ALMANAC, SWAT, and EPIC models. It is capable of simulating plant growth and development by changing the parameters associated with physiological, morphological, and phenological processes. This model is capable of simulating weeds with crops, crops with crops (intercropping), several grass species competing, or woody species competing with grasses. The model was applied to Alamo switchgrass growth at several sites in the U.S.

More about Kiniry >>>


9:40-10 a.m.

Alexander Steiner

Graduate Student in Agronomy, Iowa State University

Presentation title: “Response of Miscanthus x giganteus to Ephemerally Flooded Conditions”

Abstract: Growing miscanthus (Miscanthus × giganteus Greef et Deu.) in farmed ephemeral wetlands (potholes) may reduce economic and ecosystem service losses compared to annual crops. The performance of miscanthus in wetland conditions is unclear. A direct comparison between miscanthus and a model crop, such as maize (Zea mays L.), in potholes may allow for determination of economic and ecosystem services while also revealing potential mechanisms of flood tolerance. Determining mechanisms that confer any flood tolerance could guide development of improved miscanthus, potentially resulting in an increase in economic and ecosystem services. Measuring changes in physiology between flooded and nonflooded miscanthus could also inform ecosystem models that currently have very crude estimations of plant performance in waterlogged soils. Measuring changes between flooded miscanthus and flooded maize could allow ecosystem models to further predict how ecosystem function might change if miscanthus, or similar species, were planted into ephemerally flooded parts of crop fields. This presentation will describe field research comparing miscanthus and maize planted in six total farmed prairie potholes (three potholes per species) in central Iowa. Anatomical, morphological, and physiological metrics will be evaluated on miscanthus grown in potholes and miscanthus grown outside potholes in reference maize to quantify common plant waterlogging stress responses. Data will be used to calibrate and improve the crop ecosystem model AgroIBIS to better represent changing crop types in waterlogged soils.

Bio: Steiner is an Agronomy Graduate Student in the Interdepartmental Plant Biology Program at Iowa State University. He is a part of the Emily Heaton Lab, and is interested in determining the suitability of growing miscanthus in farmed ephemeral wetlands.

More about Steiner >>>

10-10:15 a.m. — Break

10:15-11:55 a.m. — Session 3.2: Agronomy and Sustainable Production, Part 2

10:15-10:35 a.m.

Do-Soon Kim

Professor of Plant Science, Seoul National University

Presentation title: “Miscanthus Breeding and Application for Bioenergy Production and Conservation in Korea”

Abstract: Although Miscanthus species (Miscanthus sinensis and M. sacchariflorus) are native grass species in Korea, where it can be found everywhere, it had never been considered as a crop for its commercial use until the Korean government started funding research projects for biomass production via plant cultivation in early 2000. Since 2009, a few Miscanthus studies led by three main research groups including Seoul National University have been conducted for bioenergy production. We collected several hundred Miscanthus accessions in Korea and its neighboring countries, investigated phenotypic traits associated with biomass production, and established a core collection for Miscanthus breeding. Flow cytometry and phylogenetic studies based on morphological and molecular marker analyses showed high genetic diversity in ploidy level and phenotypic traits and provided effective parental selection for Miscanthus breeding. We screened a few molecular markers via a genomewide association study with the core collection and recently developed a new Miscanthus variety called “Miscold” with a high cold tolerance enabling to adapt to the freezing dry winter of Primorski-krai in Russia, a potential area for growing Miscanthus for biomass production. As South Korea has only 1.7 M ha of cropland, biomass production by growing Miscanthus is not practically realistic there. Considering its multifunctional characteristics, Miscanthus is more practically applicable to ecological conservation and landscape management in Korea. Therefore, we are now trying to breed new varieties for not only biomass production, but also landscaping and vegetation restoration.

Bio: Kim is a Professor of Plant Science and leads the Laboratory of Crop Physiology and Weed Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Seoul National University. His main research includes Miscanthus as a biomass crop as well as weed science and crop physiology, and he has published more than 70 articles. He obtained his B.S. and M.S. from the Department of Agronomy at Seoul National University and his Ph.D. from Long Ashton Research Station at the University of Bristol, UK. He joined LG Chemicals and led an herbicide biology team, where he successfully developed a new sulfonylurea herbicide for rice. Since joining Seoul National University in 2007, he has focused on three main research areas: barnyardgrass (Echinochloa species) as a weed; Miscanthus as a biomass crop; and plant image science (plant phenomics) as a tool for rapid diagnosis of plant responses to abiotic stresses such as water stress and herbicides.

More about Kim >>>


10:35-10:55 a.m.

Sumin Kim

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, Temple, Texas

Presentation title: “Modeling Impacts of Climate Change and Nitrogen Fertilization Effects on Switchgrass Biomass Production at Diverse Sites in the U.S.”

Abstract: As highly productive perennial grasses are evaluated as bioenergy feedstocks, a major consideration is biomass yield stability. Accurate forecasting of switchgrass yield across a geographically diverse region and under future climate conditions plays an important role for determining a realistic future ethanol production from switchgrass. In this study, large amounts of switchgrass productive data from multiple regions in the U.S. were collected. Using collected switchgrass yield data, two models — an additive regression model (ARM) in machine learning and a process-based model (ALMANAC) — were developed. The simulation results from the two models were compared to provide better understanding about interaction between plants and critical factors (e.g. weather, soil, management practice, and location) driving their growth. Since ALMANAC consists of functional relationships that provide better understating of interactions among plant physiological processes and environmental factors (water, soil, climate, and nutrient) giving realistic predictions in different climate condition, it was used to quantify the impacts of climate change on switchgrass yields. This study will be useful to make switchgrass more adapted and perform well in a wide range of locations in the U.S.

Bio: Kim is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Grassland, Soil, and Water Research Laboratory, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in Temple, Texas. Her research includes process-based modeling of desert woody plants; simulating diverse native C4 perennial grasses with varying rainfall; examining adaptation of C4 bioenergy crop species to climate change through yield simulation using ALMANAC models; process-based modeling of wetland trees; simulating bimodal tall fescue growth with a degree-day-based, process-oriented plant model; sustainable pasture management in Texas; optimizing forage production and nutrient use in various environments and soils; and simulation and evaluation of impacts of waterfowl droppings on hydrology and water quality on managed wetlands. Kim received her B.S. in Chemistry and M.S. and Ph.D. in Crop Sciences, all at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

More about Kim >>>


10:55-11:15 a.m.

Danielle Wilson

Assistant Scientist I, Crop Production & Physiology Laboratory, Iowa State University

Presentation title: “Blazing toward Zero Coal — the Biomass Fuel Project at the University of Iowa!”

Abstract: The Biomass Fuel Program at the University of Iowa has grown steadily since its inception in 2013. The university has nearly 1,400 acres planted in miscanthus with the support of AGgrow Tech and has produced more than 6,200 tons of locally grown biofuel. Miscanthus is just one of the biomass fuels in use and in development at the campus power plant, and the university has declared an ambitious goal of zero coal by 2025. The miscanthus program puts those fuel dollars in the hands of Iowa growers and businesses instead of out-of-state coal companies. The team has identified supply chain development activities as a key focus as the program expands. The Iowa campus originally planned to burn miscanthus directly in a dedicated boiler, but has now determined that densification is needed. The university is successfully scaling up an energy pellet that can replace coal and is now incorporating miscanthus into these energy pellets. New multiyear trials have been set up to test different densification options for the miscanthus with the support of several business partners. Half of the 2018 harvest has been saved to go into these densification efforts. Iowa State University continues to support the agronomic research using the Long-term Assessment of Miscanthus Productivity and Sustainability (LAMPS) project to answer questions about nitrogen needs and plant performance over time.

Bio: Wilson is an Assistant Scientist at Iowa State University’s Crop Production and Physiology Lab. Her primary interest centers on dedicated bioenergy, perennial crops, and the ability to improve sustainability of cropping systems by enhancing ecosystem services through crop management. Her work has included switchgrass crop management for nutrient cycling and improved biofuel quality by manipulating the biology of switchgrass, i.e., harvest timing to reduce contaminants in thermochemical processes. Currently, she manages a shared research lab space that supports 10 faculty members and numerous staff, graduate students, and undergrads.

More about the Crop Production & Physiology Lab >>>


11:15-11:35 a.m.

Brian Richards

Senior Research Associate, Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University

Presentation title: “Perennial Grass Feedstock Production on Wetness-Prone Marginal Soils in New York”

Abstract: Cornell’s field-scale research seeks to help define the sustainability of perennial grass feedstock production on wetness-prone marginal lands in New York. Initial goals of characterizing crop yields, soil carbon (C) trends, and emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) have also expanded to include agrichemical transport and multiple collaborative side studies. Treatments operated in comparison to fallow control plots (CTRL) included switchgrass (Panicum virgatum v. Shawnee) both without (SWG) and with (SWGN) N fertilizer, and reed canarygrass plus N (RCG Phalaris arundinaceae v. Bellevue). After 2015, RCG plots were converted to v. Liberty switchgrass plus N (SWGLN). All treatments were examined in quadruplicate RCB 0.4-ha strip plots using current production practices. N fertilizer rates were 74 kgN/ha ammonium sulfate. Permanent sampling subplots (total n=80) established along natural soil moisture gradients in each treatment plot allow us to examine the effects of soil wetness class across a continuum ranging from moderately well drained to poorly drained. Yields in established SWG and SWGN plots were comparable in drier subplots, but in wetter subplots SWGN yields were clearly greater than SWG; both outyielded CTRL treatments. RCG established quickly but yields declined, and the plots were seeded with Liberty (SWGLN) via a no-till drill. Liberty established well (including in wetter subplots) and is expected to reach full production in 2019. The initial plow-down of existing fallow grassland in 2011 caused a multiyear decline in soil organic carbon (SOC), labile permanganate-oxidizable carbon (POXC), and aggregate stability valuesin the plow layer (Ap) for all treatments as compared to fallow CTRL. Long-term incubation tests found greater SOC stability in the wetter soils which had greater overall SOC and POXC levels than the driest soils. SOC levels were recovering in 2016, and POXC returned to preplow levels. Soil chamber testing in 2013-2014 found that fertilized SWGN and RCG treatments had significantly greater emissions of N2O than corresponding no-N treatments, emitting on average 2.4% of the applied fertilizer N as N2O-N during the growing season. The research site constitutes a small standalone watershed that is prone to runoff and interflow due to shallow restrictive layers. Flow logging and sampling at the site outlet enabled outflow monitoring following routine glyphosate herbicide sprays from 2015 onward. These conditions represent a conservative (minimal erosion potential) case. Monitoring to date has found up to 1% of applied glyphosate exiting the site in dissolved form, with extent strongly dependent on soil moisture status at the time of spraying. Yield, soil C, and herbicide transport monitoring is continuing.

Bio: Richards is a faculty member of the Soil & Water Group at Cornell University, where he earned his B.S., M.P.S. and Ph.D. degrees. This session is an overview of the research that has been carried out by a large collaborative multidisciplinary team, beginning in 2011 under the USDA/NIFA Sustainable Bioenergy program. Cornell’s large-scale research site has been developed on wetness-prone marginal soils because subprime lands such as these represent a primary land resource base available for bioenergy and bioproduct feedstocks.

More about Richards >>>


11:35 a.m.-11:55 p.m.

Xiaoyu Weng

Research Associate, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin

Presentation title: “Complex Interactions between Day Length and Diurnal Patterns of Gene Expression Drive Photoperiodic Responses in a Perennial C4 Grass”

Abstract: Photoperiod is a key environmental cue affecting flowering and biomass traits in plants. Key components of the photoperiodic flowering pathway have been identified in many species, but surprisingly few studies have globally examined the diurnal rhythm of gene expression with changes in day length. Using a cost-effective 3′-Tag RNA sequencing strategy, we have characterized 9,010 photoperiod responsive genes with strict statistical testing across a diurnal time series in the C4 perennial grass, Panicum hallii. We show that the vast majority of photoperiod responses are driven by complex interactions between day length and sampling periods. A fine-scale contrast analysis at each sampling time revealed a detailed picture of the temporal reprogramming of cis-regulatory elements and biological processes under short- and long-day conditions. Phase shift analysis reveals quantitative variation among genes with photoperiod-dependent diurnal patterns. In addition, we identified three photoperiod-enriched transcription factor families with key genes involved in photoperiod flowering regulatory networks. Finally, coexpression networks analysis of GIGANTEA homolog predicted 1,668 potential coincidence partners, including five well-known GI-interacting proteins. Our results not only provide a resource for understanding the mechanisms of photoperiod regulation in perennial grasses, but also lay a foundation to increase biomass yield in biofuel crops.

Bio: Weng is a Research Associate with Thomas Juenger at the University of Texas at Austin, where he asks questions about plants, ecological genetics and local adaptation. He did his doctoral work on a pleiotropic rice flowering QTL at Huazhong Agricultural University with Qifa Zhang. His current research focuses on genetic variation and evolutionary significance of Panicum hallii and its close relative, switchgrass. He is also using multi-omics approaches to study how plants respond to multiple environmental signals in both Panicum hallii and switchgrass.

More about Weng >>>

11:55 a.m.-1:10 p.m. — Lunch buffet

1:10-2:40 p.m. — Session 4.1: Postharvest Processing and Economics, Part 1

1:10-1:40 p.m.

Amber Hoover

Research Scientist, Chemical and Radiation Measurement Department, Idaho National Laboratory

Presentation title: “Impacts of Environmental, Production, and Genetic Factors on Postharvest Chemical Composition of Lignocellulosic Biomass”

Abstract: Variability in lignocellulosic biomass chemical composition causes substantial risk to biorefineries trying to store, process and subsequently convert these materials to fuels or products. The objective of this project is to understand variability in chemical composition as a result of environmental, production, and genetic factors. In particular, we will explore whether correlations can be made between chemical composition and environmental data layers with nationwide data availability — drought, precipitation, soils — to determine the potential for mapping or predicting plant chemistry. Approximately 2000 samples were analyzed from five herbaceous species — Conservation Reserve Program mixed grasses, energycane, Miscanthus, switchgrass, and sorghum — that were grown as part of the Regional Feedstock Partnership, a set of long-term nationwide field trials to support understanding the feasibility of producing one-billion tons of biomass annually in the U.S. The field trials were designed to investigate factors of harvest time, nitrogen application rate, location, and genotype. Chemical composition — glucan, xylan, lignin, nitrogen, volatiles, carbon — was predicted using NIRS-based models. Environmental data layers were added to understand the impacts of year-to-year and location-to-location variability.  Year and its interactions with other factors, like location, had a significant impact on chemical composition for all species. To date, promising relationships have been identified between variables such as drought, precipitation, and growing degree days and chemical composition of Miscanthus and Conservation Reserve Program mixed grasses; however, efforts are ongoing to generate knowledge regarding these complex relationships.

Bio: Hoover is a Research Scientist in the Biomass Science Group at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). She has been involved in a variety of projects for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office, including research related to development of a conversion-based grading system for biomass resources, the effects of drought on plant chemistry and subsequent performance in biochemical conversion processes, and biomass densification. Her current work focuses on how environmental variables, genetics, production factors, anatomical fractions, and storage alter biomass physical and chemical properties that impact quality for downstream processes. Hoover also supports biofuels research at INL by serving as a lead for the Biomass Feedstock National User Facility Biomass Characterization Lab and as an administrator forthe Bioenergy Feedstock Library, a database of biomass characterization data linked to a physical repository of biomass samples. She holds an M.S. in Biology from Idaho State University and a B.S. in Biology from Penn State University.

More about Hoover >>>


1:40-2 p.m.

Kalavathy Rajan

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Presentation title: “A Sustainable Pathway for Bioproduct Development from Switchgrass”

Abstract: Optimum use of lignocellulosic bioenergy feedstock, such as switchgrass, via recovery of phytochemicals from waste streams and value-added product development from sugar and lignin co-streams will increase the economic feasibility as well as the sustainability of integrated biorefineries. The extractives component of switchgrass, which accounts for 8% to 14% of the biomass, displayed antioxidant properties with IC50 values ranging from 0.2 to 0.6 mg/mL. Hemicellulose sugars isolated during hydrothermal pretreatment of switchgrass exhibited health promoting prebiotic properties. About 41% of xylan, galactan and arabinan extracted in hot water prehydrolyzates enhanced the growth of probiotic bacteria like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Bacteroides spp., by half a log when compared to a glucose control. Finally, after enzymatic saccharification, the lignin-enriched solid hydrolyzate can be thermo-chemically upgraded to value-added chemicals. Catalytic transfer hydrogenation of lignin, which accounts for 21% of switchgrass, resulted in 68% to 84% conversion into products like phenol, guaiacol, eugenol, etc. Thus, use of all co-products generated during biochemical processing of switchgrass and other energy crops will create new revenue streams.

Bio: Rajan is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Building on her experience in analytical chemistry, Rajan researches the biochemical fractionation of plant biomass for bio-based chemicals and material synthesis. From biofuels to 3D printing, Rajan has worked on developing varied applications from plant biomass as an alternative to petrochemical. She focuses on tuning the properties of functional, bio-based materials via modification of feedstock quality and physicochemical properties. She received her Ph.D. in Food Science from the University of Arkansas in 2015. 

More about Rajan >>>


2-2:20 p.m.

Ming-Hsun Cheng

Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Presentation title: “Sugar Production from Bioenergy Sorghum by Using Pilot-Scale Continuous Hydrothermal Pretreatment Combined with Disk Refining”

Abstract: Chemical-free pretreatments are attracting increased interest because they generate fewer inhibitors in hydrolysates. Two-stage pretreatment combining hydrothermal processing and mechanical refining was introduced to improve the cellulose accessibility for the further saccharification and fermentation and to reduce pretreatment severity. In this study, pilot-scale continuous hydrothermal (PCH) pretreatment followed by disk refining was evaluated. Bioenergy sorghum bagasse (BSB) was pretreated at 160° to 190°C for 10 minutes with and without subsequent disk milling. Hydrothermal pretreatment and disk refining synergistically improved glucose and xylose release by 10% to 20% compared to hydrothermal pretreatment alone. Maximum yields of glucose and xylose of 82.55% and 70.78%, respectively were achieved, when BSB was pretreated at 190°C and 180°C followed by disk milling. Pilot-scaled hydrothermal pretreatment was compared to laboratory-scale batch hot water (LHW) pretreatment. LHW pretreated BSB had 5% to 15% higher sugar yields compared to PCH for all pretreatment conditions. Additionally, the specific surface area was measured using a dye assay for the beginning and all pretreated samples. PCH was much more effective at increasing surface area compared to the LHW. This might be due in part to the inclusion of a steam explosion step for the PCH that is missing for the LHW process. PCH pretreatment combined with disk milling increased BSB surface area by 31.80% to 106.93%. In conclusion, a bioenergy grass was successfully processed using a pilot-plant scaled continuous-flow reactor and disk mill with high conversion yields.

Bio: Cheng is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His current research project focuses on the production of value-added products from lignocellulosic feedstocks. Cheng’s research interest is in developing sustainable biorefinery products used in food, biofuel, and renewable biochemical industries, including technical, economic, and environmental aspects.

More about Cheng >>>


2:20-2:40 p.m.

Liang Sun

Ph.D. Candidate, Food Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Presentation title: “Complete and Efficient Conversion of Hemicellulose Fractions of Plant Cell Wall into Chemicals by Engineered Yeast”

Abstract: Acetate as a key inhibitor inevitably existing in cellulosic hydrolysates hinders the usage of plant cell walls for microbial production of biofuels and value-added chemicals. In the present study, we discovered that acetate can be co-consumed efficiently up to 10 g/L with xylose by engineered S. cerevisiae under aerobic conditions. As a result of xylose and acetate co-utilization, significant increase in cell biomass, lipid content and ergosterol accumulation was observed. We investigated the detoxification mechanisms of xylose metabolism on acetate through RNA sequencing. The strategy of xylose and acetate co-consumption was successfully implemented to produce acetyl-CoA-derived chemicals including polyketides and isoprenoid. Specifically, we produced triacetic acid lactone (TAL) at a titer of 25 g/L with xylose and acetate co-feeding by engineered S. cerevisiae. We also achieved vitamin A production up to 3.5 g/L from xylose and acetate in a fed-batch bioreactor. The strategies of aerobic acetate and xylose co-utilization in yeast would facilitate sustainable and economically feasible microbial production of acetyl-CoA-derived high-value chemicals from plant cell wall.

Bio: Sun, a Ph.D. Candidate in Food Science under the supervision of Professor Yong-Su Jin at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researches the rational engineering of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae for efficient conversion of plant biomass into valuable chemicals. He is particularly interested in the production of acetyl-CoA derived natural products, such as polyketides, isoprenoids and ginsenosides, from hemicellulose fractions of plant cell wall. Sun received his M.S. in 2016 in Food Biotechnology from China Agricultural University, and got his B.S. in 2014 in Food Science and Engineering from Beijing Forestry University.

More about Sun >>>

2:40-3 p.m. — Break

3-4:30 p.m. — Session 4.2: Postharvest Processing and Economics, Part 2

3-3:30 p.m.

David Archer

Research Leader, Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Mandan, N.D.

Presentation title: “Feedstock Production Decisions and Postharvest Economics”

Abstract: The ability to acquire consistent quantities of feedstocks at costs that allow for profitable conversion to biofuels and other bioproducts is a challenge for the emerging bioeconomy. Grower decisions for producing dedicated feedstocks, including switchgrass, are influenced by many factors. The ability to generate income from feedstocks that is competitive with competing land uses is important. However, this is influenced by postharvest logistics, which also interacts with production management and producer preferences. We explore some of the interactions of feedstock production, postharvest logistics, and producer preferences on feedstock supply to a bioprocessor.

Bio: Archer is Research Leader of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory in Mandan, N.D. His research focus is on economic performance and sustainability of agricultural systems, evaluating economic risks and returns, and quantifying tradeoffs between economic and environmental impacts of agricultural systems. His research has included a wide range of systems including strip-tillage and no-till systems, diverse rotations, cover crops, organic systems, biofeedstock production, and integrated crop-livestock systems. He has authored/co-authored more than 95 scientific publications.

More about Archer >>>


3:30-3:50 p.m.

Fahd Majeed

Ph.D. Candidate, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Presentation title: “Incentivizing Ecosystem Services from Crop Production: Implications for Energy Crop Production by Risk-Averse Farmers”

Abstract: Energy crops like miscanthus and switchgrass provide ecosystem benefits such as CO2 mitigation through fossil fuel displacement and soil carbon sequestration in addition to being a source of cellulosic biofuel. These crops provide relatively high biomass yields and have potential to grow on marginal land without displacing conventional crops. However, energy crops have high establishment costs, reach full yield after some years, and are subject to price uncertainty over the crop life cycle. Such crops are less likely to be planted by farmers who are risk-averse, impatient, or credit constrained. Our research team is looking at the effect of providing payments for carbon-based enhanced ecosystem services on the decision by risk-averse farmers to allocate land to energy and conventional crops and the effectiveness of alternative contract designs for such payments. We are developing a simulation model that links an economic model with a biogeochemical model, DayCent, to account for spatial and temporal heterogeneity in crop yields. We are considering the 1,919 counties in the U.S. rainfed region, each as a representative farmer maximizing expected utility under various exogenously determined contract designs and payment levels for an exogenous degree of risk aversion, time preferences, and credit constraints and analyze land allocation choices over a 10-year period.

Bio: Majeed is a Ph.D. Candidate in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studies the economics of natural resources and the environment with a focus on agriculture, biofuels, renewable energy, and risk. He is also part of the Sustainability Theme’s operating team at the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI).

More about Majeed >>>


3:50-4:10 p.m.

Roger Samson

Executive Director, REAP-Canada

Presentation title: “Evolving Market Opportunities for Switchgrass in Canada”

Abstract: There has been considerable research effort to develop warm-season perennial grasses as biomass crops for the biofuel industry. Unfortunately, biofuel markets have been slow to develop to enable a sustainable acreage expansion. The effort evolving in Canada to develop new markets involves farmers and scientists collaboratively elaborating diverse high value opportunities. The first successful efforts to scale up were to develop switchgrass as a hygienic dairy and poultry bedding. In particular, the organic farming sector has developed considerable interest in hygienic pesticide-free switchgrass bedding for dairy, hog and poultry production. The organic sector is chronically short of straw for bedding and mulching applications. The low N content and ability to efficiently absorb and desorb moisture make it an attractive bedding product. As well organic farmers prefer herbaceous straw sources over woody materials for residual use of the manure as a soil amendment. More recently the development of dedusted horse bedding is also emerging as a high value bedding product. Switchgrass use as a horticultural mulch is developing for strawberry, asparagus, and garlic production, and as a mulch to replace wood mulch in ornamental garden applications. There is limited use of switchgrass in Canada presently for erosion control applications. However, export of warm season grass material to the United States for the production of erosion control sediment logs and wattles is increasing. The biggest driver of expanding switchgrass acreage in Ontario and Quebec has been the dairy sector.  There are three primary uses with bedding and dry cow feed being the biggest consumers of material presently. Approximately 40% of a single high-forage dry cow ration on a dry matter basis (approximately 5 kg/day) can be provided from switchgrass. Growers often overwinter the material to source very low potassium material highly suited to dry cow rations. More recently there has been interest in feeding 0.5-1kg per day of switchgrass as a physically effective fiber in dairy rations. Studies at the University of Guelph are assessing the suitability of fall and spring harvested material for this application. There is considerable interest in switchgrass by the dairy sector as producers realize it is a highly resilient and productive crop well suited to their less than best lands. Given that about 15 million dairy cows occupy the cooler temperate regions of North America and Europe, we see the dairy market as the biggest anchor market to upscale switchgrass acreage.  Some farms are recognizing the need for approximately ½ an acre of switchgrass per milking cow in the herd for bedding, dry cow feed and physically effective fiber applications. Switchgrass manure residues are well suited for biogas and biofertilizer production.  In Canada, diverse agri-food market applications are the most sustainable strategy to upscale acreage while developing other longer term bioeconomy opportunities.  Plant breeders can help enhance dairy producer planting of switchgrass by developing easy to establish and productive upland switchgrass cultivars suitable for short crop rotation cycles.

Bio: Samson is the Executive Director of Resource Efficient Agricultural Production-Canada. Since REAP-Canada’s inception in 1986, he has led the biomass energy, agri-fibre, and on-farm participatory research and development programs. Samson is a leading world expert in biomass energy development and native warm-season perennial grasses. He has authored more than 60 publications on bioenergy, ecological farming, and climate change mitigation and has been working on bioenergy projects in North America, Europe, China, the Philippines, and West Africa since 1991. His work has pioneered ecological approaches for bioenergy production and thermodynamically efficient bioenergy conversion systems. Since 1997, he has managed international development projects in the Philippines, China, and Gambia involving ecological farming systems development and sustainable household energy from biomass. Samson holds a B.S. in Crop Science from Guelph University and an M.S. in Plant Science from McGill University.

More about Samson >>>


4:10-4:30 p.m.

Eric Rund

Owner, Rund Farms

Presentation title: “The Practical Economics of Producing Miscanthus — Based on 14 Years of Experience”

Abstract: We planted Miscanthus x giganteus (Mxg) with the idea that if farmers were going to grow energy, we could do it more efficiently with high-yielding biomass crops than with corn. In theory this was true, but in fact converting biomass to liquid fuel turned out to be more difficult and expensive than at first was thought. At the same time, the value of all fuels dropped to almost half of what they were when we planted our crop. We were left with a product with no market. Taking a page from Europe’s book, simply burning Mxg — or any biomass, for that matter — is much more efficient (80%) than first turning it to liquid (35%). With a few important design changes, chip boilers can use Mxg chip fuel to replace LP gas for half the fuel cost. With most all of rural America operating on LP gas, this opens up a huge market. As a side benefit, harvesting Mxg with a silage chopper produces chips in a single pass, reducing harvest costs considerably. These chips have a ready market as poultry and livestock bedding. Once established, Mxg is quite economical to produce, and with these two markets the last four years our Mxg is more profitable than corn or soybeans.

Bio: Rund is a producer of food-grade corn, seed beans and miscanthus in East Central Illinois. Drawing from work done at the University of Illinois, three biomass study trips to Europe, and his own experience, Rund expanded his miscanthus production on his own farm to 40 acres. From this he harvests, stores, and delivers miscanthus chips for boiler fuel, turkey bedding, and erosion control. In June 2017, he assisted to source and install a multifuel biomass boiler at the University of Illinois Energy Farm to heat a large greenhouse. Besides replacing 10,000 gallons of LP gas, the boiler serves as example to others of what they can do with biomass grown on their own farms. Rund promotes planting miscanthus on less than desirable soils in the Central Cornbelt as a way to reduce nutrient runoff and also because it has become a profitable crop to grow.

More about Rund Farms >>>

4:30-4:50 p.m. — Closing Remarks/Awards Ceremony by Switchgrass V Host D.K. Lee

4:50-5:05 p.m. — Break

5:05-5:15 p.m. — Van Transportation to Illinois Energy Farm

5:30 p.m. — Tour of Energy Farm/Group Photo

6:30-7:30 p.m. — Dinner at Energy Farm

THURSDAY, JULY 25: Workshop at Turner Hall, 1102 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana

8 a.m.

“Identifying Native and Bioenergy Grasses”

Led by Arvid Boe, Professor of Agronomy, Horticulture & Plant Science, South Dakota State University; and Thomas Voigt, Professor of Crop Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Particulars: Van transportation from Holiday Inn provided; breakfast available during Workshop

Description of Workshop: In a classroom setting, Boe and Voigt introduced the vegetative features (e.g., growth habits and leaf features) used in grass identification. The vegetative features of several native and bioenergy grasses, including big bluestem, Indiangrass, switchgrass, prairie cordgrass, eulalia, and silver banner grass, were examined and described.

Bios of Workshop Leaders: Voigt is an Emeritus Professor and Extension Specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and served in campus-based positions from August 1987 through December 2018.  His research focused on perennial grasses — particularly on selecting and managing low-maintenance turfgrass cultivars, prairie grasses for golf course roughs, and bioenergy grasses used in combustion and cellulosic energy production. Voigt holds B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees in Horticulture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Boe’s abstract may be found in his speaker info for Session 3.1 above.

Accommodations & More


The Holiday Inn is located off of Neil Street (U.S. 45), a major north-south artery in Champaign. This facility is a welcoming space for overnight stays and meetings.

Of note:

  • Check in 3 p.m. and check out at 11 a.m.;
  • Complementary 24-hour shuttle service to and from airport/bus & train station
  • 100% smoke-free hotel

Address: 101 Trade Center Drive
Champaign, IL 61820

View on Google Maps.

Holiday Inn website >>>


Nearby eats

The hotel’s location off Neil Street is near several fast food and fine dining locations. Among the Champaign originals are The Ribeye, Jarling’s Custard Cup, and the original Merry Ann’s Diner.

Air Travel

Willard Airport (CMI)

The quickest, easiest way to travel a long distance to the iSEE Congress is to fly into Willard Airport (CMI) in Savoy.

Website >>>